Special Report

Friends Like These

A gaggle of far-left groups attempt to co-opt the immigrant rights march in San Francisco.

By 9.8.06

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SAN FRANCISCO, California -- As I strolled the beautifully landscaped green of the San Francisco City Hall plaza awaiting the thousands en route with the Labor Day Immigrants Rights March, a cheery young woman bounded out from behind booth of the Freedom Socialist Party -- the "Voice of Revolutionary Feminism" -- to pass along a flyer headlined, "Love Knows No Borders: Unite to Defend Queer and Immigrant Rights." Further down, a little cartoon man held a sign advocating, "Free love, not free trade."

"We're not separatists," she assured me. "You could join."

Even as I demurred a volunteer from A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) thrust a handbill at me for an upcoming screening of the documentary Fidel, which promises "rare footage" of El Comandante "swimming with his bodyguards" -- Love Knows No Borders, indeed.

Like a movie star whose Hollywood cachet you can track by the ebb and flow of his entourage, the number of political hangers-on at the San Francisco march clearly demonstrated the ascendancy of the immigration rights movement. As with any other hangers-on, the people trying to cop a ride on the immigrant rights movement's coattails have their own agendas -- agendas that are not necessarily a boon to the cause.

Walking the green that morning you could pick up Workers Vanguard, Socialist Worker, Socialist Appeal, all from all the various groups vying to be the Official Vanguard of the Revolution. Gray Panthers and Dykes Across Borders were on hand. The Spartacus Youth League passed out excerpts from Leon Trotsky's "To the Spanish Youth": Trotsky may have written, "The study of Marxism outside the revolutionary struggle can create bookworms but not revolutionaries," but those content to be bookworms could pick up Castro's War, Racism, and Economic Justice: The Global Ravages of Capitalism or Cuba at the Crossroads.

Meanwhile, the Haymarket Books tent was selling "We are all Palestinians" T-shirts -- silhouette of a young man throwing a rock -- which was strangely appropriate since the literature castigating the Zionist Entity outnumbered amnesty/immigration rights pamphlets by at least ten to one. A man peddling Mexican flags had few takers. There was one booth dedicated to registering recent immigrants. The first question on the lips of nearly every other booth table jockey was some variation of, "So do you have any interest in the wider movement?"

The starkest example I saw of how disconnected the activists attempting to co-opt immigration for their own ends were from those they were ostensibly there to help was a middle-aged white woman standing in the midst of arriving Hispanic marchers waving mostly American flags -- although some Mexican and El Salvadoran flags fluttered in the breeze as well -- with a sign hoisted above her head reading, "Sensenbrenner, You Are an Extremist Jew!" Some solidarity! I wonder which image will make it into the reactionary blogosphere: The older female emigre from China sweetly attempting to reassure her fellow citizens through a translator, "All new immigrants are brave, hardworking and friendly" or the woman waving around the anti-Semitic poster while the Chinese woman spoke?

OF COURSE, MOST WERE NOT as crass as all that, but there was unfortunately plenty more on display that day to feed the Lou Dobbs strain of dime-store demagoguery. The line-up of official speakers, voices booming from loudspeakers and echoing off buildings, showed a keen uninterest in using the platform of a large-scale media event to reach out to a native population concerned about widespread demographic changes. Instead of talk of reconciliation or unity or compromise or even fairness, speaker after speaker hammered away at the most divisive points in the debate.

"We are here and we will never leave and we demand legalization," one man said into the microphone, followed by a Bayview woman who shouted, "You're standing on your own land and you can't be illegal in your own country. This is your land you don't have to apologize for being here."

In front of me a young couple gave their portraits of conquistadors -- "We Didn't Cross the Border, The Border Crossed Us" -- a particularly vigorous shake.

"We need to let the language barriers go," she continued. "We all speak the same language -- equality, justice for all people."

Yet every third line she had to stop for a translator.

BY THE TIME A REPRESENTATIVE from Filipinos for Affirmative Action came up and a Mexican political activist got fired up about the Zapatistas, it seemed everything had gone hopelessly off track.

"There is complicity among technocrats, the International Monetary Fund, the global banks and the United States," one speaker railed, suddenly giving a rally for the compassionate treatment of immigrants toiling in the United States had all the broad-based consensus of the WTO riots. Gerald Lenoir from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration followed this up, exclaiming, "We are fighting against the same racist system. We are fighting against the same corporate power. We are fighting the same right-wing conspiracy in the United States." And still more muddle from yet another speaker: "We are all members of families of the world against globalization fighting for a better life for grassroots communities."

Globalization? Corporate power? The IMF? When did a freshman sociology class take over the march? If this is a civil rights movement, as organizers contend, they should be attempting to broaden its appeal, not throwing an anchor of already marginalized political stances around its collective neck.

There is no excuse for this lack of political diversity. Certainly a significant amount of the anti-immigration rhetoric on the right is reprehensible and without excuse. But if organizers of this rally were looking to show a broad spectrum of support for just, compassionate immigration reform and therefore be more persuasive to body politic writ large -- let's grow up and accept "No Borders, No State" and "Unconditional Legalization Now" are nonstarters on any realistic level -- they would attempt to engage those outside their conspiracy theorist coterie. There are conservative and libertarian voices out there certainly willing to accommodate them, perhaps even a voice from within the administration.

"We know we are scapegoated for all of the problems in society," Day Worker Center Director Maria Marroquin told the crowd. "But if people understood our struggle they would be with us, because this is a human struggle."

Allowing a march to devolve into a circus where immigrant rights become inextricably entangled with pet issues of the far left, however, only serves to further convince those with conflicted feelings about immigration that this categorically is not their struggle.

Despite all the rhetoric, all this noise in the streets has not significantly increased new voter registration. The crowds at the Labor Day rallies were much smaller than those at the May Day marches only last spring. It's time for the immigration rights movement to decide whether it wants to cast a wider net. As it stands now it has more to fear from those desperate to associate attach themselves as "friends" of the movement than it does from Pat Buchanan.

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