Will April’s demonstrations turn into a general strike in May for the Rose City? In the wake of last month’s mass protests for immigrant rights, more than a few local organizers are calling for a May Day of action (see the community calendar) that will carry some economic as well as political punch to it.
This is not the wishful thinking or empty threats heard from time to time by members of Portland’s Left. A number of remarkable things happened last month when the Latino community turned out to protest the latest vile work of U.S. Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner, Jr., the man who brought you the Real ID Act of 2005 and who now wants to turn hundreds of thousands of Latinos into felons.
First of all, it wasn’t just the radical son or daughter who took to the streets here or elsewhere in the nation. Entire families turned out to voice their opposition. Second, people walked off the job and left classrooms to be part of this important event. The voices calling out weren’t echoing off empty building walls. At least one Gresham fast food restaurant closed because workers left to protest. No one knows how many other businesses suffered some economic loss from lack of workers. Third, and most important, was that the people soon left organizers in the dust. No top-down orders about routes, monitors or who orders the port-a-potties. The April 10 and 14 protests were driven by the masses, not the leadership.
If there was one jarring note in all of this, it was the absence of non-Latino participation. There was representation of Portland’s hardcore Left as well as of labor despite the difficulty of this issue inside the more conservative unions. The most noticeable absence was the peace movement. Now I’m sure there were some individual peace activists there, however, for a movement that keeps saying they want to reach out to people of color, there was little of that going on during the mass rallies and marches.
It sounds like they will have another chance.
As I said at the beginning of this column, the buzz about a general strike is different this time. People aren’t necessarily using that phrase, however, they are talking about reaching a magnitude of protest that hasn’t occurred since the before the start of the war in Iraq. What could occur here might be something akin to the recent defeat of an awful youth worker bill in France. Thousands of youth, workers and others turned out. It wasn’t the power of their arguments or the clashes with police that made them prevail. It was disruption of the economy from so many people stepping back from the machine and letting it go idle that brought the government around.
The fight for immigrant rights can be won the same way. It will take the Latino community staying the course it set upon last month and building upon those successes by bringing more members of their community out of the workplace, classroom and home to demonstrate in the streets. It will also take their allies joining them in solidarity.
These plans are already causing anxiety among some of those allies. Supportive liberal churches and non-profit groups are not comfortable with the idea of a general strike and its class warfare implications. Others feel the absence of a spelled out agenda for these actions calls for pause before escalating to a new level.
Some of these concerns may be legitimate, however, there comes a time when allies must be willing to follow. Should the path down which they are taken present unacceptable risks — revocation of a union’s charter, for instance — then they can always stand aside. The key is that they not become an obstacle to the people taking the biggest risk of all by placing themselves and their families at risk of arrest and possibly deportation.
As for the question of agendas, the immigrant rights movement is striking at one of the most fundamental issues facing millions of humans: the right to exist — the right to exist in a place of our choosing without being exploited for our labor, imprisoned or driven across some arbitrary line on a map.
They are doing it, furthermore, in the most appropriate way: exercising that right to the fullest degree possible.
There is no violence in stepping out from behind the fast food counter, leaving the office cubicle or walking away from the road grader to exercise our right to exist alongside our husbands, wives, children, co-workers, friends and neighbors.
iolence, should it come, and the greater our numbers the less likely it will, will be from the exploiters and only further expose them for what they are.
Should our Latino sisters and brothers turn out once gain this month, join them in the streets in making history.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: June 5, 2006