On Saturday June 12th, a hundred anti-racist and democratic-minded folks descended on the south gate of the Texas State Capitol, protesting a rally held by supporters of Arizona’s SB 1070 and who want to enact a similar law in Texas. Supporters numbered around 200-250 and were made up of Republicans, Tea Party folks, Texas Nationalists, and a sprinkling of fascists. The counterprotest and others like it speak to a growing minority tendency of the immigrant rights movement who are ready for confrontation with supporters of white supremacy and which has added new dimension to the debate over the road the movement should take.
Counterprotest in Context
Before the State of Arizona passed SB 1070 and a following bill banning ethnic studies and teachers with accents, Texas made a major encroachment upon public school curriculum which removed historic figures such as Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez and will place more emphasis on the non-violent tendencies of the Civil Rights movement and in opposition to organizational experiences such as the Black Panther Party.
Such attacks remind us that we’re not living merely through the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, but also the deepest political crisis in likely 100 years. All of the old concessions the rulers have formerly used to coopt mass struggle: better wages, pensions, free and public education, public hospitals, ethnic studies programs, etc. are being removed from the table. There are hardly vestiges of the organs of struggle that working people built in the early 20th century, the 1930s, and 1960s to put the rulers in check and build the independent power of workers, women, and people of color.
Political struggle has been narrowed to either liberal and progressive NGOs and non-profits or spontaneous bursts of mass activity to emerge every few years and that go far beyond the limits of the established organizations. It is this spontaneity that has yet to find permanent organizational form and that can carry it during the highs and lows mass rebellion and consign liberals and progressives to obscurity.
To Fight or Not to Fight
With the defeat of HR 4437 aka the Sensenbrenner Bill in 2006, no doubt due to popular insurgency through mobilizations, strikes, and walkouts, the struggle over immigration, like gay marriage, is being fought out on a state level. Many are hearkening back to the Freedom Summer of 1964 where civil rights organizers from the North spent a summer in the Deep South, with some staying even longer, organizing voter registration drives and desegregation campaigns, and the need to recreate a similar initiative in Arizona. While such a project is important, what SB 1070 demonstrates is that the fight is where we already are. As lawmakers propose and launch comparable attacks on people of color elsewhere in the South, we need to build fighting organizations in our state, our own cities, and our own communities.
The debate over the way forward for the immigrant rights struggle has been radically changing ever since the sit-in at Senator McCain’s back in May of this year. Defying the terms of struggle and the logic informing it, three students have risked their livelihoods and residency by sitting in and demanding support for the DREAM Act which if passed would offer conditional, permanent residency to undocumented students.
The established immigrant rights organizations are asking those who want to engage in this type of direct confrontation with their oppressors to take a back seat to their leadership. Some of them claim they are in support of amnesty but that it isn’t the right time to introduce such a demand and that it runs the risk of alienating politicians who would then not support the DREAM Act or Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Furthermore, they fear that radical approaches that break the law would confirm the perspective of the racists that immigrants are criminals.
Others, many of them radicals in the academy, suggest that undocumented peoples should abstain from some or all direct action because they face greater economic and political uncertainty. Many can go into great theoretical detail about the institutions of white supremacy and the inequality of capitalist society but find themselves beholden to the narrow parameters such a society offers us to participate in politics. In short, they talk left and walk right.
Yet another tendency, though small, rejects such condescending liberalism. They feel an urgent desperation after years of organizing, beginning with the 2003 immigrant freedom rides, that our liberation is not the burden of citizens or white folks or liberal organizations whose leadership is merely biding its time until they win political office. They aren’t afraid of calling attacks on undocumented workers what it is: white supremacy. They see the struggle of immigrants as bound up with that of all people of color, queer folks, and women and their methods of struggle correspond to their perspectives.
It is in this spirit that a counterprotest was organized to confront the white supremacists who want to extend and centralize the powers of the state despite their claims to be desiring of “small government.” The organizers of the rally encouraged folks to not bring racial signs or make racial statements, yet many yelled at counterprotestors that it has “nothing to do with race” alongside others armed with automatic weapons yelling “Go home, wetbacks!” As much as they tried to police their own racism, it was for not.
The counterprotest kicked off at noon. After a few minutes of introductory speeches and chants to get the crowd hyped, we marched onto the Capitol grounds directly toward the protest. We were instantly cut off by the Capitol police. We employed a variety of tactical formations, from marching to different sides of the protest, to conducting a picket line, to opening a space for anyone who wanted to say something to do so. We had the effect of being louder than their music performances and their speakers to the point where one speaker lost his cool and began screaming at us to “shut up” as the above link indicates. Eventually, the police threatened us with confiscation of our bullhorns and arrest if we continued to use them but it didn’t stop us.
Many had never spoken in front of others before and learned the strength of their own voice. Some high schoolers had remarked that this was the first political action or had never participated in anything like it. Others got the chance to debate individually and as a group with supporters of SB 1070 which went a long way towards developing their debating and polemical skills.
How It was Organized
It is understandable why some advocate the Left working together. They are tired of the sectarianism that isolates the Left from mass struggle, creates a culture of divisiveness, and throws up barriers to fighting alongside each other. The stick can be bent too far in this direction however, where the Left champions working together at the expense of their own principles or where there is no objective basis for unity; meaning no organizing is taking place that creates terms of struggle and unity.
With no large and bureaucratic coalition structure, several groups came together, including ¡ella pelea!, MEChA, Anti-Racist Action and others, to organize the counterprotest in a temporary organizing committee. The committee was majority women and people of color and largely queer. While the groups were disparate in politics and in focus, we agreed to the terms of a united front which ensured a democratic respect for folks to bring their own signs and flyers and employ a variety of tactics. This prevented “movement cops” from policing the actions of others as we see all too often in popular front-type coalitions. Instead we used the committee space to share and coordinate different tactical approaches. It was a real high note of Left solidarity that was grounded in organizing.
Critiques by the Left
There have been criticisms coming from elements both here in Austin and nationally about what the merits and points are of such counterprotests. While there are numerous points above that speak to the strength of the counterprotest, let’s take them up one by one.
The liberals say we become equated with the Right when we confront them directly, chant and yell at them or debate them individually. Others limited their critiques to more trivial issues, such as numbers; you need this many or that many to do this or that. Still others on the Left contrast organizing counterprotests to building the from-below power of undocumented workers and their organizations.
For the liberals, their conflation of principles and tactics doesn’t allow them to see the most obvious differences between white supremacy and anti-racism. An undocumented worker who yells in the face of a racist is not the same as a racist calling them a wetback. The number crunchers assume the reasoning of petitioning, that the more who sign on to a “cause” give it more legitimacy. I think for those of us who chose to show on June 12th, the struggle against white supremacy is a valid struggle in and of itself. We didn’t feel the need to wait for everyone else to give us their okay. Numbers are important in so far as strategy and tactics are concerned. The organizers of the event didn’t plan for a physical confrontation with the Right or the cops, not out of principle, but because of the odds stacked against the counterprotestors.
For those that contrast counterprotests and building organization, how are such counterprotests antithetical to developing the political power of undocumented workers and students? It is precisely in such confrontation where folks can overcome the perceived omnipotence of the racists, build their confidence and capacity to fight, discuss organizational and protest strategy and tactics, etc. This is giving them the experience to lead in all areas of the struggle. Counterprotests are not the full extent of the immigrant rights movement, but it is an arena of struggle that can’t be ignored or dissed.
We need to begin setting up the chess pieces for larger and more direct forms of confrontation as the struggle begins to advance. We need folks organizing for civil defense against ICE raids and minute men attacks, defending and expanding ethnic studies and immigrant access to universities, as well as on-the-job action against racist bosses. In ALL of these areas, confrontation is an indispensable component and they will go hand-in-hand with creating the kind of strong, dynamic organizations that are needed to win.
But the counterprotest has a greater import beyond what it did for the folks who organized and participated in it. Most of us acknowledge the dynamism of the Right today; their perspectives, strategies, and organizing are cutting edge and far advanced of stale liberal and social democratic talking points. But what was clear on this day is that they were out-organized. What was a Saturday afternoon picnic of a protest for them was a spirited, organized, and dynamic counterprotest for us. What was stale and pale for them was youthful, militant, and diverse with people of color clearly taking the lead.
Links to articles, photos/video