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Tuesday, Jun. 28, 2005 at 8:42 AM
My personal experience at the Baldwin Park counterdemonstration June 25, 2005
BP2: The Reconquista
Despite my late start, I still managed to get to the San Gabriel Valley just in time for the beginning of the festivities at 11. That is, I would have if I hadn't exited Baldwin Blvd instead of Baldwin Park Blvd and gotten lost for a little while. Driving through Baldwin Park, I attempted to observe as much of the city as possible to determine for myself whether or not it merited the label of "cesspool". In my opinion, it did not. I stopped by the 99-cents-only store for a pair of scissors, an American flag, (I intended to buy one to accompany my Mexican flag, which I unfortunately left at home.
Despite my conviction that nationalism is an impediment to human unity, I wished to hearken back to the protests of the 60's and 70's, when the counterculture attempted to reconfigure the symbology of the flag, appropriating it for their own cause. I also wanted to represent my heritage (Mexican and American) and test my own right to free speech.) and directions.
When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was the strong police presence and control over accessibility. I parked behind a shopping center near the Metrolink tracks and I could hear some activity, but it was difficult to tell what was going on and where, so I asked the first cop I saw, who sounded as if he had said the words "You'll have to cross the street and go around" about a hundred times already. I thanked him and went on my way. The first protest activity I saw was a speaker leading chants and a circular march. He also had a small crowd of spectators. I
hadn't yet finished my signs, so I stopped there to work on them and listen a while. His primary was "racism means", to which the crowd responded, "Fight back!", with "racism" being varied with "War in Iraq" "police brutality", etc. I didn't shout "Fight back" with them, since the ambiguous word "fight" could be interpreted as the use of violence. The speaker was very clear about his attitude toward the police, who he viewed as racist tools of a racist system. Having been at the Staples Center for the DNC in 2000, I thought the cops showed remarkable restraint, graciously ignoring the criticisms--some founded, some unfounded--laid at their feet while they were there to protect our rights. Then the speaker announced that he and his entourage were heading back to the main event, which I was glad to hear, because I had assumed I was there.
On the way there I got a lot of positive comments on my sign. (It was Uncle Sam and la Virgen de Guadalupe standing back-to-back with their arms crossed in front of their chests and frowns on their faces. The text underneath read, "Mom and Dad, Please Stop Fighting".) The two additional signs I had made during my stop read "Nationalism is the measles of mankind.--Albert Einstein" and "I
When we got to the Metrolink parking lot, there a band was playing. The procession was still chanting and somewhat disrupted the performance. I was amazed at the scope of the activities. We filled almost the entire Metrolink parking lot. The arts community was well-represented; there were many young activists, many children, the Brown Berets, peace activists, and quite a variety of other people. About 50 yards from the PA area there was a row of people holding up panels of a site-specific mobile participatory mural. The piece was created by Judy Baca and featured famous quotes and images of people. I'm sure she'll have it all on her website. At the end of the cordoned-off area was a row of police and I think you guys were down the block, because it looked like there was another wall and row of cops, but my long-distance vision is not that great, so I can't be sure.
Then I ran into a few people I knew, and talked to the a while before going to the poster-making area to make more signs. I made one that said Exodus 22:21 and as soon as I finished, I was asked to participate in the artwork. I held a panel that featured a human silhouette labeled "Armenian American". Soon enough, the mural moved (we walked around in a circle). I spoke with some of the other particpants in the artwork, one of whom had helped to organize the event. He said he had been in Alhambra and at Garden Grove. While I was participating in the artwork, a reporter came up to the girl next to me and asked her who had organized the mural. "I think it was SPARC", she replied. "Who?" the reporter asked, and was referred to the SPARC representative. "She hasn't done her homework", I commented.
When I went back to the sign-making area after my turn was over, my sign was gone.
I was devastated. I had spent all night working on it, and the girl manning the table had assured me that my sign would be safe. I recovered my Exodus sign and went looking for it. I asked the girls at the table to keep an eye out for it and left them my number just in case. I went and asked my friends, but they hadn't seen it. So I walked around searching for it. A few people asked me what Bible verse I was displaying, and seemed to appreciate it.
You guys are going to love what happened next. The most heated area of the demonstration appeared to be near the wall nearest the SOS side. When I began to search over there, I was confronted by a young man (probably 16 or 17) with a Mexican flag tied around the lower part of his face. He objected to the U.S. flag sticking out of my (Mexican) bag of woven wool, and pointed me out to the crowd. "This guy's an infiltrator!" he yelled. "Get out of here! This is our land! Wetback!". (I have light skin). If you imagine me there with my "stop the war" shirt, my baggy shorts with Spanish rock patches, and holding my sign whose verse is "Vex not the stranger, nor oppress him, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt", the thickness of the irony becomes quite clear.
At first I couldn't even believe what was going on. I considered getting angry and yelling back, giving the young man a stern lecture on the purpose of the demonstration and the necessity of creating a just, egalitarian, anti-racist society, but instead just walked away and continued my search. He and his buddies, who were dressed exactly the same as he, followed me, one of them ripping my sign from my hands. I wanted to tell him that I was both white and Mexican, that I probably know more Spanish and Mexican history and culture than him, that I dance folklórico,etc. but I knew that all he wanted was conflict, so I walked away again. Again he and his friends followed me, and it seemed like something was bound to go down.
I was willing to get beat up for my right to be there and have that flag. Imagine, I would have been the martyr for your cause! But fortunately, and as a counterpoint to the story of Oldpreach rescuing the SOS "damsel in distress" in Alhambra, a group of four young women (and one man) surrounded me, taking me to the side. "Don't pay attention to them, They don't have the level of consciousness yet," they told me, and generally tried to make me feel better. "Let's go watch the band", they suggested, effectively ending my search for my sign. People asked me what happened and were generally sympathetic. I was very grateful to those girls, for although I would have been willing to test my convictions, I was glad that I didn't have to. I also bear no ill will to my young harassers; they are young enough that their minds can still be opened and molded. In my personal opinion, I think he felt threatened by sexual competition (my attractiveness renders me irresistible, especially to Latinas.)
As we walked back to the performance area, I saw a tall white man in proper dress holding the 13-star Betsy Ross flag on a tall pole. He walked to the end of the demonstration area, where I had just been harassed, and I could see that he was drawing the ire of the folks who were giving me problems. But I resisted the urge to go watch and instead enjoyed the music. I think the band playing was El Vuh, an L.A.-area underground hard-rock/hip-hop/Rock-en-Español groud with an indigenist consciousness. I was impressed with their style and enjoyed their set. While I was watching, a middle-aged man passing by suggested that I put my U.S. flag away. I did not heed his suggestion.
Eventually, the crowd's attention was drawn to the man with the flag.
A squadron of police in riot gear had been called in to escort the man out. It looked like some people were trying to attack him and others, these dressed in red shirts, were trying to hold them and the crowds back.
I stayed in the music area for pretty much the rest of the time, listening to Judy Baca's speech when she claimed that the police had arrested Joe Turner, "like they should have a long time ago." It was the first time I had ever heard an artist call for the arrest of one of her critics.
Aztlan Underground finished off the festivities. Their music is in pretty much the same vein as El Vuh, except they use more indigenous instruments and many of their songs are in Nahua. They are much better live than on CD (I have their CD and it sucks). There was no flag-burning, which is the traditional ceremony for closing AUG shows, but I suppose they would have been breaking some ordinance and would have risked prosecution.
We were asked to leave peacefully and take the spirit of positive resistance with us.
The only contact we had with SOS was a few people who yelled stuff as they drove by. One of them was wearing a mask --I couldn't tell, it may have been a Reagan mask, which I thought was ironic since som many of you claim not to need masks or anonymity. They yelled some nasty stuff at us.
I think the worst part of the event was the great police-imposed distance between the groups, which effectively censored both messages. I was hoping to see some "Cesar Chavez opposed illegal immigration" signs, which may have provoked discussion and debate on our side", and I was hoping your side would see at least the "I
But there was no interaction whatsoever. There was no way for us to get anywhere near your side. I even told one of the cops that I had made arrangements to meet with one of you and asked if there was any way I could get over there. He flatly denied me.
Hopefully this site, Indymedia, SPARC's site, etc. provide the forum for discussion that was denied us on Sunday.
Walking back to my car a group of activists asked one of the cops about getting some of their comrades out who had been arrested, so I know there were a few arrests, but I didn't witness any of them. I also spoke with some legal observers from the Lawyer's Guild, who claimed they hadn't witnessed anything of note.
And incidentally, it was not strictly a 'raza-fest'; there were blacks, whites, and asians, and people from every age and economic sector.
All in all I'd say it was a pretty good day, although there was not much bridge-building. Maybe we can organize a debate/discussion forum for that purpose.
If anyone took a picture of me with that sign, would you either post it up somewhere or e-mail it to me? I'd really appreciate it.
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