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Organizing "The Movement"

(Resistance to Anti-Immigrant Legislation and the Gutting of Affirmative Action)

by Mario Savio

From a speech on Feb. 24, 1995, at an ACLU of Sonoma County dinner in Sebastopol, California.

This is going to be a report: What caused things to change? It was the appalling election! Everyone here found that election dreadful and appalling, and I was worrying, would it also be so daunting that it would result in apathy and despair? But quite evidently, that is not what has happened.

Now I don't consider it to have been a real election. Let me say something about what to me a real election is. I've attended many meetings, the kind that go on interminably. A position is presented. Objections are raised. The position is refined. More objections are raised. People seem to have more objections than bases for agreement. The position is refined. Finally, after all of the reasonable objections have been met and consensus has been arrived at, you have the vote. In fact, sometimes you have a straw vote ahead of time so that no one will feel bad. They'll know that they really had a chance to convince people one way or the other. And hopefully, it's unanimous.

That's not the kind of election we just went through. There was no real discussion. That was a sound-bite election. And the sound-bites come at very great expense. That's not the way democratic elections should take place.

Two days after the election, my son Daniel, reading about Proposition 187 (which says if you go into school, you've got to prove that you are a citizen) said, "Daddy, I'm not going to obey that law. I'm not going to present that proof." The problem is, sometimes, it's easier said than done. There's an Italian proverb, the Italian version of "Easier said than done." Fra it dire et il fare, che it mezzo delle mare. That means, "Between the saying and the doing lies half the sea." Half the sea! Imagine yourself in a boat out in the center of the sea. It's equally far to go in every direction and you have halfway to go. We'll come back to it.

I and others started talking to others on the telephone, thinking maybe, maybe, we could pull something together. So we called meetings. First meeting was about 30 people from about ten campuses. Subsequently on the 11th of February we had another meeting -- about 110 or 120 people from a variety of California campuses, ready to do something. That was a very interminable meeting, and we didn't even succeed in selecting a name. So I refer to it as "The Movement." The word has a certain historical cachet, no? It is actually the same movement grown up.

We've had to learn a lot of things. It's easier to organize from the Right because organizing from the Right frequently involves no more than mobilizing on the basis of people's already-existing prejudices, whereas organizing from the left also requires a degree of genuine moral re-education so that people put aside their contempt for one another -- which we are taught in this society -- and learn that we are all brothers and have to pull together. That requires deep re-education.

Let me summarize very briefly the kinds of important decisions we came to at that meeting of February 11. We decided that we would take as our responsibility workplace-organizing, organizing the campuses, the public college and university campuses in California. And we have to really pull together.

Secondly, we decided this cannot be a "student" movement; this will be a movement in which the campuses are organized: the faculty, the students, and the non-academic staff together.

Third, we decided that we will look like what we believe in; that is, leadership will be very multi-ethnic and will have women and men leading in conditions of complete equality. That could not have happened thirty years ago. The movement thirty years ago on the campuses was more or less a white, male radical-dominated movement. But affirmative action works! The campuses don't look that way anymore. As a result, the meetings have been multi-ethnic and multi-gendered.

We decided the issues we would immediately tackle would-be opposition to implementation of Proposition 187 on the campuses, and we will resist the destruction of Affirmative Action. Finally, we decided that as we present these two issues, we will put those ideas within a broad political and social context. We have learned a lot about race, gender, class, the environment, and the Empire. That is the context within which we have to put those positions we take on specific issues and why, for a very good reason. If we come and say, "I'm against Proposition 187," or "I'm in favor of Affirmative Action," it's from left field. We need to create an alternative voice, an alternative vision, an alternative context, within which it makes sense to be both intelligent and compassionate, in equal measure.

I had a gut feeling about Proposition 187: cruel and stupid. But I don't know enough about the intricacies of immigration policy which a progressive society might adopt, so I have to learn. I'd like to recommend to you something that was helpful to me as a start. It's a short book, not a book with which I thoroughly agree, but a good book, a thoughtful book. It's by Roberto Sauro. It's called "Remembering the American Dream: Hispanic Immigration and National Policy". Read it because one wants to be as clear as possible. When people say, "You're crazy, look at these scofflaws stealing from us, coming in, taking things, taking food out of the mouths of our children, etc.," you need to be more knowledgeable than the yahoo who is confronting you. But whereas in the past the "us" was very small and "them" very large, we have a potential today for an "us" that is somewhat larger. Let's not lose sight of that.

I would like to suggest briefly the context on the immigration question. There are lots of reasons why people come to another country, say, to the United States. There are cultural reasons. We are spewing our culture over the whole world. In my father's home town in Sicily, they all have TV sets. It's the Middle Ages except for the TV sets. They know more about The Brady Bunch than I do. The same thing is true throughout Latin America. So there is a cultural attraction, and I'm using the word culture in a loose sense.

There are other forces. There is an economic pull, and an economic push. What is the economic pull? It's not that there are just illegal immigrants; there are illegal jobs -- lots of them in agriculture, in the garment industry, service industries. Somebody wants these folks to come! Pete Wilson, for example, in 1986, before he became governor, was a senator. At the time that the immigration law changed, he pushed for special amnesty for agricultural workers, so that the people who harvest the crops and keep the prices low and live in Third World conditions, driving down American wages, would not be excluded from our labor force. Then comes the election. Oh, another problem -- getting reelected. It's okay, we want their labor, but we don't want anybody to love them too much. In fact, if you hate them, you won't recognize that you ought to be directing some of your ire toward us.

So we have the whipping up of anti-Latino hysteria for opportunistic political purposes. Now 187 is in the courts. When I see some of the buildings in some of our cities, I say, "Couldn't they have hired an architect?" And I think here, "Couldn't these people have hired a real lawyer to put 187 together?" But I guess they didn't. It's in the courts. It may stay there. I hope it dies there. And Pete Wilson's agribusiness friends hope so too. So now that he's flipped, now he flops. Now Pete Wilson is in favor of a guest worker program. You let them clean the floors, then when you're done with them, you boot them out. I don't think that's the kind of society we ought to be building.

Then there's a question of push. We have an impact, as a society -- remember, 46% of the world's yearly consumption of raw materials and 6% of the population? We impact on the countries people come from, contribute to maintaining dreadful conditions in their countries, so that they will be happy to try to sneak in here to work under conditions not quite as dreadful. I'm talking about the maquilladoras on the border. The present Mexican interest rates are now in excess of 50%. One would hate to be a worker under those conditions. We suffer at 8%. Imagine what it would be like at 50%! Are they crazy? Don't they have economists in Mexico? No, this wasn't the Mexicans' idea. This is part of the S20 billion bailout of Mexico that they need to jack these rates up They can't be paying their workers too much. Again, an impact that we have.

An outrageous event recently occurred. A fellow working for the Chase-Manhatan Bank was commissioned to write a report about what to do about Mexico. That report was sent to potential investors and contained the following words: "While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."

Now when they say, "eliminate the Zapatistas," they mean "Bang, bang, you're dead." Not long after that, President Zedillo and the government of Mexico did it with helicopter gunships and search and-destroy missions. They couldn't quite pull it off, but they did, in fact, try to "eliminate the Zapatistas." I do not claim that because the Chase Manhattan Bank sent this report out and because subsequently the government of Mexico tried to destroy the Zapatistas, there was a causal relationship. But don't you think we ought to check it out? If there are journalists here, there is a Pulitzer Prize in the making. Let's get all the details, folks. Did it have some impact on the conditions of the S20 billion loan guarantee? Check it out, please. We want to know, we want to know.

So we have a situation of pull -- come and take these cheap jobs, illegal jobs -- and push -- we're going to create conditions in your country so horrible if you try to get uppity about it and change them, well wipe you out. They come; then someone wants to get re-elected, so he demonizes them. Now, this is sick. One needs an immigration policy. One wants in a respectful way to be able to integrate the people to whom one offers entry. That immigration policy cannot be a piece of architecture presented to us by the very people most interested in exploiting these immigrants. We have to share in deciding what that immigration policy should be, and this particular proposition is not part of it. We cannot cooperate in having it implemented in this country.

Now I would like to say something about Affirmative Action. I will be brief. First of all, we have our marching order. Rosa Parks, just a few days ago made a speech at San Francisco State University, and she said, "Guys, you've got to protect it." And she, as far as I am concerned, is the Mother of us all.

I know that Affirmative Action needs fine tuning. But, my friends, I want it fine tuned by people who hate racism. We can do that job. The first time that I was arrested was at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and the issue was decent jobs in visible locations for black workers. That was before Affirmative Action got its name. And this is something that I will go to the wire for, and I hope that we all will. This is something that we cannot yield on.

Consider these two things together. Proposition 187 -- disrespect, cruelty towards immigrant fellow humans -- and gutting Affirmative Action -- disrespect, rejection of fellow citizens, be they black, women, male, or whatever.

Affirmative Action is not in the nature of a universal right. In a good society you wouldn't need it. But we're not close, my friends. We are a long way from the kind of society where you don't need to have an institutional preference for those who have been repeatedly rejected, disrespected, suppressed.

If you consider these two issues, a larger context begins to emerge. In both cases, white males are appealed to, against the Others, many of whom have fallen into what is called the urban underclass. It's respectable to say "underclass." It is not respectable to say "working class." Now the word underclass has an interesting connotation. It's underworld and working class. These are the "criminal workers," these are the workers so desperate, so stupid, so benighted, you don't want to fall in with them. This is the rhetoric of a word. Now, why in this wealthy country do we have an underclass? I don't think that we need to have an underclass. However, how do you eliminate the underclass in order to show respect to our newly arrived fellow workers, in order to show respect to those who have been here a long time -- women, African-Americans, Latino citizens, and so forth -- and do it in such a way that you don't start a race war with white males -- in other words, avoid the traditional American error to divide and conquer the people by means of inter-group and especially inter-ethnic rivalries of the worst sorts?

I can only see one way. We need more money. And there's only one place to get it. You can't have a society in which you cut education programs, cut health programs, eliminate libraries -- and also eliminate the under class. You see, it can't be done. So this is hard rowing. But I don't see any way to accommodate the people who have so long been disrespected -- and also not start a war with white male workers -- without a significant redistribution of power and wealth downward, the direction opposite to the direction it has been going.

The Barbarians are taking over. It is a rising tide of barbarism. If you're going to do this intelligently, you have to make subtle distinctions. I was told I need to refer to Newt Gingrich as a "principled conservative ideologue even my conservative friend put it that way. But let's see what they're doing and then judge what they are. The school lunch program -- out. Now it's going to go down to the states, and they can decide what to feed the kids. Let me tell you, it's not cuisine.

Meanwhile, junior high school children stick up other junior high school children for their lunch money. That is a serious state of affairs. I claim that there is a connection between the lack of empathy and cruelty that could consider eliminating the school lunch program, and the corresponding feeling of community which our young people feel today. I think there is a connection.

"Social Pork" is a coinage of Phil Gramm. He would like to become President. "Social Pork" was coined in reference to night-time basketball. It just makes your skin crawl. My favorite Jesus Christ quote: "from the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaketh." I do not like to contemplate what is in that man's heart that he could refer with such gleeful contempt toward people trying to put a basketball in a kid's hand, rather than waiting until that kid has picked up a gun.

I call them Barbarians. To me, barbarism means coarseness. These are people incapable of recognizing a problem until it has achieved the level of guns and bloodshed, and then they are incapable of conceiving a solution other than in those very terms. These are people with a "law enforcement" approach to every social problem. That is their way. We need to offer an alternative way.

I'm going to return briefly to that Italian proverb. Let me repeat it to you. Fra il dire et fare ('between the saying and the doing") che il mezzo delle Mare ("there lies before you half the sea.") There is a lot of hard rowing in that boat between here and port, a lot of hard rowing. Right now certain people have their hands firmly on the tiller. We are supposed to do the rowing. I will not row unless I get a chance to contribute to steering the boat. And let me say, if you can bear a pun, if you want to take the boat to port, you have to steer left!

Reprinted from North Coast Xpress, April/May 1995. Edited by Doret Kollerer, secondarily by M. Rossman.

Copyright 1994 by Mario Savio, 1998 by Lynne Hollander. This work may not be reproduced in any medium which is sold, subject to access fee, or supported by advertising, without explicit prior consent by the copyright holder.

  This page last changed 16 July, 2001


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