New Orleans Waiting for my US Air flight from DC/National Airport (I won’t call it Ronald Reagan!), I saw Reverend Walter “Slim” Coleman from Chicago getting his shoes shined across from my gate. I walked over and sat in the next chair and visited with him a minute. I asked him about his evaluation of the recent Summit on immigration reform we had both attended. He looked over to me, and said simply, “good mechanics.”
That clear and concise statement clarified an uneasiness I had felt all week after attending two great conferences marking the emergence of the progressive movement at the Campaign for America’s Future and then the launching at the summit of the Reform Immigration FOR America campaign to win comprehensive legislation on immigration finally. The meetings were great. The graphics were excellent. The plenary sessions brought in speakers that rocked the halls and tents were the meetings were held. The events were meticulously organized and the staff and volunteers did bang up jobs at both meetings, yet there was still a hollow “but” there for me and many others less articulate that Slim.
Part of it is the Beltway effort to try and “manage” the deep and fierce anger that still lives in the breasts of both progressives and immigrant advocates. In DC there seems to be an unstated collective consensus to hold one’s breath and tiptoe around the immense popularity and good will generated by the new president which replaced the visceral rejection of the Bush years. There seems to be something more like the “hope” for reform and a feeling of no one wanting to take a chance of blowing it, rather than a real ramping up and a press for all the change that we can wrest out of the historical moment.
I’ve been organizing too long perhaps, but the evidence I would marshal for this argument is both on the nuts and bolts as well as the soul of the events.
The workshops seemed part of a pacification program, not deliberately, but effectively. These were places to allow the “troops” to participate, rather than to build consensus or momentum. 20 people talking about fighting foreclosures at the CFAF and 9 on the 287g fight in Phoenix makes the real issues people are feeling seem like sidebar to the stagecraft that the DC-based organizers were trying to create in order to leverage legislation.
Every once in a while something would break out the mechanics mold, and it was hard to miss the response to the moment.
The example that struck me was a speech at the Summit on Thursday evening by a nun from Postville, Iowa, who read her remarks from the trenches where she deal with immigrants and their issues as individuals and from the lofty position of a clear and stark morality around this issue. Her speech was an organizer’s nightmare. She had something to say, had written it all out, and was reading every word. The mistress of ceremony gracefully stood closer and closer to her as the minutes went on and on, helpless to bring the speech to an end. There were no histrionics. This was an expression of faith and justice. As Sister Mary slogged on, one could see a hustle among the tables, as people started realizing something was happening off-program. At my table people starting asking “Who is that?” partly in amusement and partly out of curiosity. They started listening. They heard Sister Mary turn to Anna Ashley Garcia and say that these were her final comments and then go on for another ten minutes. Surprisingly when she actually did finish, more than 700 people rose to their feet from their dinner conversations in applause. Sister Mary was one of their people. She was someone who was there on her own steam without a care about the negotiations in the back room and the headcounts from the White House or the spin of the war rooms, but who was there because justice had to be won. The time was now.
Someone from the base was finally on the stage and raising their voice. Something was happening that was authentic. They were applauding with the solidarity of understanding that victory for all of us in these critical fights will be in the field and closely allied to real people and real problems that force their messy way to resolution in legislation.
A movement can’t be manufactured, bottled, sold, or even represented. A movement transcends mechanics and finds its force, expression, and natural level. Now is the time to take the new shackles off the movement and finally win something real.