Tomorrow, May 1, advocates are organizing what they have dubbed “The Great American Boycott,” urging immigrants to demonstrate their economic clout by staying home from work and school and refraining from making purchases.

What will happen? No one knows. For this boycott – and the larger immigrants rights movement – to be successful, it must attract broad support. Until now, many of the faces associated with it have been Latino. But there are some signs that more Asians and blacks are supporting the movement. In Los Angeles, the Korean American Apparel Wholesaler Assn. asked its 1,000 members not to fire anyone who takes Monday off, the Los Angeles Times reported. And members of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, National Korean American Service and Education Consortium and the Council of Korean Churches in Southern California are urging members not to go to work that day. In fact, there are plans to shut down all businesses in Koreatown, New America Media reported.

The Chinese-language World Journal recently published an article advising companies on how to treat Latino employees who do not show up for work on May 1, suggesting they treat the boycott as they would Election Day, when employees have the right to leave work to vote.

There are also encouraging signs that the Asian American community – 60 percent of which is foreign born – sees parallels with its own struggles. In an editorial in the Vietnamese Nguoi Viet in Orange County, Calif., Ky-Phong Tran wrote, “Thirty years ago, Vietnamese people came to this country without documents either, looking for the very same things as those out there in the streets: a chance at a stable job, education for their children and opportunity.” He continues, “In their struggle, I see my struggle and I cannot turn my back to it.”

And the Rev. Jesse Jackson has said he will participate.

In cities around the country, some radio stations will go silent, honoring the boycott. Eduardo Sotelo, known as Piolin, Los Angeles’s highest-rated morning radio show host and a major architect of the March 25 immigrant rallies, will not broadcast his seven-hour show tomorrow. Instead, he plans to join two marches in downtown Los Angeles. Other DJs in Dallas, Nashville and Las Vegas, have said they will go silent, too.

Will the economy grind to a halt? Again, no one knows. But statistics and some quotes provide some indications. More than a third of Los Angeles County’s population is foreign-born, according to 2000 figures from the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit public policy research organization in Los Angeles. Stephanie Williams, senior vice president of the California Trucking Assn., told the LA Times a boycott “is going to be devastating to us because we are going to be 30,000 containers behind” if truckers don’t show up to transport cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Still, many could stay home because they are afraid of being fired, as has been the case for some who participated in other recent marches. And undocumented immigrants may fear that they could be caught by federal immigration authorities’ sweeps, although there has been no confirmation that this could happen. (In one article, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice refused to say whether agents would be present at Monday’s rallies.)

Despite these concerns, one survey predicted that about 70 percent of Latino immigrants are planning to miss work. The survey, by Garcia Research Associates of Burbank, Calif., showed the strongest support in Los Angeles, where 79 percent of those interviewed said they would not go to work and 94 percent said they would not buy anything on Monday. (The survey was conducted by phone in Spanish to 761 Latino immigrants living mainly in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Houston and Chicago.)

In California, neither the Senate nor the Assembly will conduct business on Monday. Several Democratic legislators said they would participate in the demonstrations, and the Senate approved a resolution designating Monday as the “Great American Boycott 2006.”

The boycott may also extend south of the border, where a word of mouth and email campaign is urging people to boycott American businesses in Mexico and other Latin American countries. In Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, the Chamber of Commerce announced that its 5,000 members would neither buy nor sell U.S. products that day.

A Tale of Two Marches

Press reports have widely covered a divide over the boycotts. But such stories understate groups’ common goal of advancing immigrants’ rights, and overlook the critical role a more radical wing can play. Think Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Having what you might call a radical flank is advantageous to those people trying to bargain with the system because you can portray yourself as the reasonable alternative,” David Meyer, a UC Irvine professor of sociology and political science, told the LA Times.

In Los Angeles, two marches highlight the story of the two related movements. One, sponsored by the March 25 Coalition, a group of mostly Latino grassroots organizations, is to begin at noon. The other, scheduled to allow people to come after work and school, will begin at 4 p.m. Backed by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, it is being organized by the We Are America coalition of labor, religious and community groups.

Critics of the boycott, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have asked children to stay in school, saying they need a good education. But supporters say one day away from classes is a small price to pay, and that children may learn more by participating in a massive social movement than by sitting in class. While it is not encouraging students to walk out, the National Council of La Raza has issued a flier informing protesters of their rights.

Organizers hope to draw on a long tradition of using boycotts as an economic tool to bring about social change and win concessions from companies or the government. “The point is to show that without our help, it wouldn’t be the same here,” Southern California housekeeper Danira Hernandez told the LA Times. “People need us to support their lifestyle.” (Hernandez, who is delaying surgery for a fibroid tumor because of the cost, decided not to participate in the boycott because she can’t afford the lost wages.)

Making Our Voices Heard

Those who support the goals of the boycott but balk at school or work walkouts are proposing a variety of alternatives, such as participating in protests after work or school lets out.

Some of the best ideas I’ve heard involve efforts to register new voters and help people apply for citizenship. Another good idea comes from Anjelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She proposes a national day of community service, allowing immigrants to demonstrate their value to their communities and their commitment to the country.

Such actions could help avoid the backlash that has already begun. Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante have received death threats, and in Phoenix, one radio talk show host lost his job after telling listeners to “pick one night – every week – where we will kill whoever crosses the border,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In another instance of what anti-immigrant hate groups are capable of, a computer game called Border Patrol, found on a white supremacist’s Web site, lets players shoot figures such as a pregnant woman with two children. If they shoot the animated images as they run across the desert, they win points, and blood spatters across the screen.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I hope organizers will build on the successful elements of the massive March 25 immigrants’ rights demonstrations. Protesters there wore white T-shirts, waved American flags, and brought trash bags to pick up after themselves, at the urging of Spanish language DJs and others.

And they adopted a simple chant that speaks volumes about how they can no longer be ignored: “Today we march,” they said. “Tomorrow we vote.”

One Reply to “May 1: To Boycott or Not to Boycott?”

  1. At our local rally in Amherst, MA, over 800 people gathered on the town common to support immigrant rights. Speakers ranged from professors at the area colleges to local business owners to middle school kids who walked out of their classes.

    One of the touchstone arguments was against the house immigration bill sponsored by F.J. Sensenbrenner (R-WI), which is aimed at “securing the borders” and does not allow for any lawful way for illegal immigrants to become citizens, or to work in the United States. Overall, there was support for an opposing bill in the Senate which provides for a guest worker program and a protocol for citizenship. However, some leaders seemed to think that this bill is unacceptable as well. One professor suggested that perhaps it’s not such a crazy idea to simply open the borders entirely and grant access to work and citizenship to anyone who wants it. Another professor railed against the guest worker proposition, “You’re not guest students. You live here. You work hard. You’re citizens.”

    I think my favorite part of the day, though, was when an overzealous high school boy, running high on the thrill of having walked out of his classes, rapidly lost the support of the crowd when he exclaimed, “Immigrants are the shit!” and proceeded to instruct us to go find some immigrants and invite them to eat some rice with us at the local Venezuelan restaurant (which happened to be closed in solidarity with the boycott).

    Overall, though, the message was clear that immigrants–currently considered illegal or otherwise– are a vital part of this nation whose contributions will no longer be taken for granted. Si se puede!

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