In one of the largest mass protests in the city’s history, an estimated 70,000 demonstrators marched from the Eastside to Downtown on Sunday in boisterous condemnation of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative, and its best-known advocate, Gov. Pete Wilson.
“This proposition is not against the illegal (immigrant), it’s against children,” declared Salvador Alendar, a 32-year-old textile factory worker and Mexican native who carried his 2-year-old daughter, Lisbeth, on his shoulders throughout the march’s almost four-mile route.
It was a sentiment repeated by other outraged marchers and by the dozens of speakers who took to the elevated podium set up at the corner of Spring and 1st streets, just across from City Hall, and addressed the multitudes assembled beneath an azure sky.
“We’ve got to send a message to the rest of the nation that California will not stand on a platform of bigotry, racism and scapegoating,” declared Joe Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the black civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The march was the latest in a series of anti-187 demonstrations, but polls have shown continued strong support for the initiative. By contrast, proposition backers have run a near-invisible campaign from their Orange County base, mostly responding to news media inquiries and appearing at forums.
Proposition 187, among other things, would bar illegal immigrants from receiving public school educations and a range of other state- and county-funded benefits, including non-emergency health care and a variety of social services.
March organizers said more than 100,000 participated Sunday, but police estimated that 60,000 to 70,000 took part. Still, it was the largest protest gathering here in decades, surpassing Vietnam War-era demonstrations including the historic 1970 Eastside march for Chicano rights that turned violent and left three dead.
Police reported no serious injuries and no arrests on Sunday. Hundreds of volunteers helped to guide the orderly, regimented crowd, which formed a column more than a mile long, a roiling river of banners, flags and placards moving triumphantly down Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, named for the late United Farm Workers union founder. Eastside sidewalks were packed and impromptu vendors set up shop selling “No on 187" T-shirts. Another shirt declared, “No Re-pete,” a reference to Gov. Wilson’s reelection bid.
The governor’s image was burned in effigy near City Hall during the speeches and placed in a coffin, and depicted elsewhere on placards, T-shirts and with a noose around his neck, as a pig, and in other pejorative images.
Despite participants’ anger, the mood on Sunday was mostly exuberant, leavened with ethnic pride. Flags of Mexico, El Salvador and other Latin American nations were everywhere. The event had been heavily promoted in the Spanish-language media and at community organizations statewide.
Marchers converged across from City Hall where, before speakers addressed the throng, three horn players performed a mariachi riff of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to thunderous applause.
Although the vast majority of participants were Latinos, reflecting the region’s large immigrant population from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, non-Latino whites, Asian Americans, African Americans and others also took part.
“Anyone who says the immigrants of California are not working and are on welfare is lying,” Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made a spirited bid against Wilson in the Republican gubernatorial primary race, told the crowd.
Other speakers included Assemblyman Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and City Councilmen Richard Alarcon, Mike Hernandez and Richard Alatorre.
Organizers called the protest part of a multiethnic campaign to reject growing anti-immigrant “hysteria” nationwide.
“This is not a parade, this is a social movement,” said Juan Jose Gutierrez, an Eastside activist and leading march strategist, who noted planners’ desire to turn around what he called an anti-immigrant tide and win official recognition of immigrants’ contributions.
For the moment, though, attention is focused on next month’s California elections and two critical contests: Wilson’s reelection effort and the heated battle over Proposition 187.
Wilson was the favored target of Sunday’s demonstration, depicted repeatedly in posters and speeches as a “racist” who has made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign in a cynical effort to woo the non-Latinos who dominate California’s voting rolls.
A spokesman for Wilson dismissed the harsh criticisms and downplayed the march’s importance.
“Those who are demonstrating represent a relatively small minority of Californians,” said Dan Schnur, a Wilson campaign spokesman. “Most Californians understand the innate unfairness of providing services for individuals who live in this state illegally at the same time services are being cut for those who live here legally.”
Wilson himself, during a 45-minute address Sunday to an audience of some 400 in the retirement community of Leisure World in Laguna Hills, did not mention the protest when he blamed illegal immigrants for costing the state billions of dollars in services that should be reserved for legal residents.
“We are unable to provide services to our own legal residents,” Wilson said. He declared that illegal immigrants absorb 10% of the state’s general fund.
“Now that is terribly unfair. . . . I say we should end those services to illegal immigrants. We are . . . rewarding people for violating U.S. law.”
Despite opposition from educators, medical groups, organized labor and others, polls have shown strong support for Proposition 187 among likely voters, including many Latinos. Proponents say it will deter new illegal immigration and force those already here to return home--a premise disputed by opponents, who say the measure would leave hundreds of thousands of youths without education while contributing to the spread of disease by cutting access to non-emergency medical care.
The proposition’s strong support, analysts say, underlines a widespread preoccupation about the fast-paced immigration that has drastically altered California’s demographic mix since the 1980s.
Anti-187 strategists acknowledge a difficult uphill battle, particularly because even though anti-Proposition 187 forces have apparently raised more than twice as much money as proponents, fund-raising efforts have so far fallen short of the kind of money needed for an all-out television blitz against the initiative.
Many in the anti-187 coalition--including mainstream Latino groups such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund--argued that a massive march barely three weeks before the election was a bad tactic, and attempted to scuttle the event. Several Latino activists privately expressed fears that a sea of brown faces marching through Downtown Los Angeles would only antagonize many voters.
Another group, Taxpayers Against 187--the umbrella organization spearheading the campaign against the initiative whose member groups include teachers, medical professionals and union activists--did not take part in organizing the march.
Nonetheless, march organizers--a statewide coalition of activists grouped together as the National Coordinating Committee for Citizenship and Civic Participation--opted to go ahead with the event.
Participants called the demonstration a success, as it provided a forum for opponents--citizens and non-citizens alike--to express their frustrations. They said it sets the stage for increased immigrant participation in future campaigns, electoral and otherwise.
“There was concern and disagreement based on what was the best way of defeating 187, but I don’t think you can deny people the right to participate,” said Councilman Hernandez, who was among the marchers.
Not so impressed was Ron Prince, chairman of the pro-187 campaign.
“If the weather’s nice, they can do that if they want to,” Prince responded when contacted at the campaign’s Orange County offices. “I’m sure a lot of people were there to see the show.”
The march, he predicted, would bolster his cause by focusing attention on the problem of illegal immigration.
“When people look at the issue, they understand the problem and they tend to support Proposition 187,” said Prince, an accountant in Tustin.
While the march turnout was impressive, many participants were foreign nationals unable to vote. Among them was Rafael, a 27-year-old illegal immigrant who hoisted a Mexican flag as he marched near the head of the event.
“Our lives are here now, and we’re not going back to Mexico no matter what happens,” said Rafael, a factory worker and father of three, including two U.S.-born sons and an undocumented 6-year-old boy now attending public school. “I work hard, and I don’t think it’s fair that my son should be thrown out of school,” Rafael said as he marched.
Among the many Asian Americans participating was Han Kyong Kim, who came with a group of Korean Americans. “If this proposition passes,” said Kim, a businessman, “all immigrants will be suspect.”
Sunday’s march follows a similar demonstration in May that drew between 8,000 and 25,000 protesters to Downtown Los Angeles, before Proposition 187 was placed on the ballot.
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Chip Johnson and Nicholas Riccardi.