A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
In the past few weeks I’ve been writing about the relative visibility of the Tea Party and the immigrant rights movements, noting how the mainstream media has devoted far more attention to the right-wing Tea Partiers than their actual turnout would warrant. Even though immigrant rights protesters have been producing crowds that are just as large (and sometimes demonstrably larger) than the anti-tax folks, the former group has not been perceived in the media as being a growing and relevant force. As we might say in social movement circles, the Tea Partiers had momentum and the immigrant rights activists did not.
In the past week there’s been a significant development that may have changed this. On April 23rd, Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill into law that makes it a state crime for undocumented immigrants to reside in Arizona and mandates that police officers question anyone they believe may be in the state illegally. It is racial profiling en masse. The Arizona law has not only galvanized the Latino community but has also refocused media attention on the issue of immigrant rights.
A little background: Before the law, activists had already been turning out large numbers of people to demonstrate in favor of progressive immigration reform. These included 200,000 people at the March for America rally in Washington D.C. on March 21, as well as 10,000 to 50,000 at a follow-up rally in Los Angeles a week later. However, these events were significantly under-covered by mainstream news organizations.
One reason for this is that conventional wisdom within Washington D.C. holds that the prospect for passage of any decent pro-immigrant legislation—the demand of the protests—is slim. Since the reporters and media commentators don’t believe it is possible, they end up reinforcing the idea by ignoring social movement activity around the issue. Basically, they help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. (The fact that the Tea Partiers, in contrast, have the echo chambers of Fox News and right-wing talk radio to amplify their causes, however quixotic, gives them a huge leg up.)
When an event like Arizona happens, it alters this dynamic. Now reporters and commentators are looking for popular demonstrations to cover, and they are more likely to give disproportionate attention to those that do arise. On April 25th, two days after the Arizona law was signed, a thousand or so people gathered outside the state Capitol building in Phoenix to protest. In terms of turnout alone, this was not a particularly remarkable gathering. However, it drew a lot of attention because the Arizona law was already being treated as a national news story.
An interesting test case for all this will be protests around immigrant rights planned for May 1 in Los Angeles and other cities. These protests have been scheduled for months, and they were originally designed to promote immigration reform at the national level. I had predicted that, although these actions may well have turned out numbers of people similar to those the Tea Partiers produced for their Tax Day protests, the May 1 demonstrations would receive far less media publicity.
Since my original prediction, the climate has altered. Not only will the Arizona law galvanize pro-immigrant communities and increase turnout for the protests, it will create a new narrative that justifies the media treating the demonstrations as an urgent and ballooning cause. The number of rallies slated for May 1 is growing rapidly, and actions are now planned for over 100 cities.
RECENT HISTORY SHOWS that the political effect such protests can have is profound. In the weeks surrounding May 1, 2006 more than a million protesters took to the streets in a series of immigrant rights actions that had a dramatic impact on politics in California and other southwest states. Crowds of up to 500,000 turned out on repeated occasions in Los Angeles, accompanied by 300,000 in Chicago and tens of thousands in New York, San Francisco, and other cities. Then, like now, pressure for progressive immigration reform had been building for some time, but there was also a more immediate trigger. In 2005 Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) threw a grenade into the immigration debate in Washington, D.C.—in the form of a reactionary piece of legislation. His bill, which ultimately passed through the House but faltered in the Senate, made illegal presence in this country a felony, sought to fence off 700 miles of the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and criminalized those who would assist undocumented immigrants in obtaining food, housing, or medical services. Anger and fear about the Sensenbrenner bill provided a huge impetus for pro-immigrant communities to take action.
Ultimately, the bill became a great liability for Republicans, as waves of newly politicized Latinos voted for Democrats at the local, state, and national levels. This phenomenon is known as the “187 effect,” named after the 1994 anti-immigrant California ballot proposition that sank the state’s GOP for many years. It is why, this time around, savvy Republicans such as Karl Rove and Jeb Bush criticized the Arizona law. (It is also why Greg Palast, about whom I’ll refrain from complaining at greater length, gets the voting story exactly wrong in his recent commentary about Arizona.)
WHEN IT COMES to escalating the momentum of a social movement, a trigger like Arizona does not just increase numbers at rallies and heighten public attention; it also spurs greatly increased militancy among core activists. In the wake of Governor Brewer’s action last week, there have been numerous calls for civil disobedience, boycotts, and other forms of nonviolent resistance. Over at the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse declared a personal boycott of Arizona, and she noted the potential power of wider boycotts:
“Representative Raul M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, has already called on the nation’s business community to protest the law by withholding its convention business. Such boycotts can be effective, as demonstrated in the late-1980s when the loss not only of convention business but of—horrors!—the Super Bowl prompted Arizona voters to reinstate a Martin Luther King holiday in the state.”
Likewise, at Waging Nonviolence, Eric Stoner has a post surveying a range of nonviolent calls to action. These include moves to boycott the Arizona Diamondbacks and threats by independent truckers to disrupt deliveries.
All of these things are good news for a movement that has been struggling to get noticed and that needs to convince media commentators to reconsider their belief in its irrelevance. Suffice it to say, I’ll be looking forward to May Day.
Research assistance for this article provided by Tim LaRocco.