Compare and contrast: last Saturday, as half a million people took to the streets of Los Angeles in protest of proposed anti-immigrant legislation, the city's Latino political establishment marched right alongside them. When Los Angeles high school students staged walkouts two days later, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa invited them into City Hall to speak. The following day, the Los Angeles Unified School District sponsored teach-ins on the protests and the immigration wars wracking this nation. On both days, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested a total of just four adults; they spent most of the time guiding marchers through the streets.
"They're noisy but well-behaved," LAPD Chief William J. Bratton told the Los Angeles Times on March 28. "Let them have their say."
Orange County was a different story. No Orange County Latino politician greeted the thousands of high school students who walked out Monday. School officials castigated their students in The Orange County Register as mere truants and threatened to punish them with Saturday work detail—or worse. Police arrested students for acts as simple as jaywalking (although some pendejos did throw rocks at cops) and dispersed crowds. And after a group of Santa Ana students marched through county offices, the Orange County Sheriff's Department sent out a squadron of deputies in riot gear and cut off access to most of downtown Santa Ana. Police helicopters drifted in the gray sky; squad cards blocked the city's main artery, Bristol Street, their lights flashing red and blue.
Santa Ana Police Department spokesperson Baltazar de la Riva said his department contacted at least 11 separate county law-enforcement agencies for backup; by day's end, more than 275 officers had swarmed Santa Ana. The gridlocked city looked like something out of South-Central, circa 1992.
Sheriff's spokesperson and Republican activist Jon Fleischman defended his department's actions. "We believe in the right to lawfully assemble," he said. "There is a clear line that was crossed by some—violating the property rights of others, creating traffic congestion, throwing things at people. That goes beyond the bounds of a peaceful demonstration. There's also something to be said for it being the middle of a school day."
What accounts for such differences in places just 30 miles apart? Part of it is historical. Orange County's political establishment has never taken kindly to Mexicans protesting for their civil rights. In 1936, when citrus workers went on strike, Orange County Sheriff Logan Jackson ordered his deputies to shoot to kill. The Latino civic-rights group Los Amigos was born in 1978 after Anaheim police officers brutalized a group of Latino teens in the city's Little People's Park. The drywallers strikes of the early 1990s were met with police harassment, arbitrary CHP stops and officially sanctioned thuggery. And when Latino activists march against police brutality, they usually run into cops.
"The political infrastructure in Los Angeles allows for Latino officials to take much more progressive stances," says Alexandro Gradilla, professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton. "They're backed up by well-organized groups like labor that are overwhelmingly Latino. Orange County Latino politicians, meanwhile, feel very suffocated. Who has their back? There aren't many well-established, politically powerful, pro-immigrant groups here. If they need to move up, and their district changes, it's dangerous for aspiring politicians to take the stance of immigrants and students who walk out."
The different approaches Orange and Los Angeles County cops took to the protesters didn't surprise Gradilla. "It's not that LA cops are so wonderful," he said, "but because the [Los Angeles] political establishment won't tolerate it."
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But that begs a question: Why would the OC political establishment not just tolerate a crackdown, but also endorse it? One answer may be what UC Irvine political science professor (and OC Weekly contributor) Mark Petracca has called the "Gilchristification" of Orange County politics. Jim Gilchrist, of course, is founder of the Minuteman Project, the OC-based group that sponsors citizen border militas—what Gilchrist calls the largest neighborhood watch program in the world.
Most of the Orange County political establishment likes to think the past is dead—that the locals who drafted and pushed for Proposition 187 represent the last gasp of suburban warriors who swelled the ranks of the John Birch Society, campaigned for Barry Goldwater, kept the county safe for Republicans and helped push Ronald Reagan over the top in 1980. Popular thinking at the Center Club, the Pacific Club and the Orange County Forum has it that today's Republicans are biotech/high-tech/surfwear entrepreneurs and free-loving developers who've come to characterize the county in such shows as The O.C.
But Jim Gilchrist knows better. Last fall, at an anti-immigrant rally in Ontario sponsored by KFI-AM 640's The John and Ken Show, Gilchrist climbed the stage to endorse John Campbell's run for the 48th Congressional District seat vacated by Christopher Cox. Campbell seemed a slam-dunk in the race: he's a wealthy car dealer whose candidacy was backed by the county's Republican Central Committee. Then Gilchrist upstaged Campbell. Before a roaring live audience and tens of thousands of Southern California radio listeners, the Aliso Viejo resident said he would seek the same seat. He tied illegal immigration into virtually every social ill: "the floundering public schools, bankrupt hospitals, an ever-increasing tax burden, traffic gridlock, runaway housing prices and much more." Gilchrist went on to run as a candidate for the American Independent Party, consistently pounding Campbell for what he claimed was his spinelessness on illegal immigration.
Voters elected Campbell in December, but only after he'd made his amends to the anti-immigrant constituency. His trajectory is pure Gilchristification: in 2000, The Orange County Register reported that Campbell, then a state assemblyman, thought illegal immigrants should receive the same benefits as citizens "since the federal government has not controlled the border to prevent the immigrants from coming in." In 2002, Campbell voted to allow illegal immigrants in state universities to pay in-state tuition and approved the use of Mexican government-issued ID cards for official purposes.
But following his collision with Gilchrist, Campell renounced such positions, claiming state Democrats deceived him into the votes. Now, his official congressional website notes that the congressman arrived in Washington "prepared to tackle our nation's most pressing issue, illegal immigration. Within days of being sworn in, he introduced and successfully passed an amendment to the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005."
Gilchristification doesn't pacify true believers, however. Allan Bartlett, an Irvine resident and Republican who runs the widely read Powder Blue Report (powderbluereport.blogspot.com), says rank-and-file Republicans aren't satisfied with the likes of John Campbell. "Deep down inside," he said before Campbell's December victory, "the [Republican] party bosses know that the silent majority of their members support Jim and what he has done."
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Indeed, they do. The evidence came Monday. In a widely distributed e-mail, longtime local activist Duane Roberts described how peaceful demonstrators on the corner of Bristol Street and McFadden Avenue in Santa Ana were suddenly met by officers swarming out of vehicles—60, by Roberts' count. Officers on horseback rode through residential streets; cops shoved people to the ground for no reason. Roberts fled the scene until things settled down.
"After the army of cops retreated, the only visible property damage one could see was graffiti that somebody sprayed on local businesses," Roberts wrote. "On the wall next to a convenience store I bought a bag of chips and a soda from, somebody wrote the words 'Mexico, don't hate.'"
Alex Brant-Zawadzki contributed to this report.