Small turnout, big questions

Times Staff Writers

Waving U.S. flags and demanding citizenship for undocumented immigrants, tens of thousands of jubilant protesters marched through the streets of Los Angeles on Tuesday during a mostly peaceful day that ended with clashes between police and demonstrators in MacArthur Park.

Fifteen police officers were among those hurt. About 10 people were taken from MacArthur Park by ambulance to hospitals for treatment, said d’Lisa Davies, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. She said the injuries mainly were cuts, including head and neck wounds. None of the injuries were believed to be serious. Police reported that one demonstrator was arrested.

About 35,000 people turned out at two Los Angeles rallies, far fewer than the combined 115,000 that organizers had anticipated and greatly fewer than the roughly 650,000 who turned out at rallies last year.

Turnouts were light across the country compared to last year, when millions of marchers in 150 cities took to the streets.


Chicago -- home of the original May 1 International Workers’ Day more than a century ago -- drew the largest crowd with 150,000, while New York’s rally drew only hundreds.

In Los Angeles, after police tried to disperse demonstrators who had moved off the sidewalk onto Alvarado Street about 6 p.m., some of the few thousand participants still in the park started throwing plastic bottles and rocks at officers.

Then, several dozen riot police, clad in helmets and wielding batons, started clearing the park, firing a few dozen volleys of foam bullets into the crowd.

Late Tuesday, a spokesman for Telemundo confirmed that one reporter and three camera operators from the Spanish-language TV station had been injured and had been taken to a hospital by police.


Another TV station, Fox 11, showed video on its 10 p.m. newscast of a Fox camerawoman apparently being struck by a baton-wielding police officer.

The violence began unfolding when a helicopter flew low over the east side of the park and sirens blasted as police ordered people out of the park, telling them they would be arrested if they didn’t leave.

The police formed a riot line across the park on the east side, forcing the crowd to move west. Some participants were yelling at police, “You can’t do this.”

About 6:45 p.m., police ordered the last people out of MacArthur Park, mostly news personnel and some marchers filming the police actions, declaring an “unlawful assembly.”


One of those at the scene, Hamid Khan, who works at South Asia Network, termed the police action “absolutely an atrocity” and said officers overreacted.

The police action had cut short several speeches, he said, as people left when the confrontation began. “All this shooting is an atrocity,” he said.

Another confrontation came about 6:50 p.m., still well before nightfall, when a police car with lights blazing was bombarded by bottles and clothes as it passed. A line of officers fired several volleys of the foam bullets from wide-barreled launchers resembling shotguns. People started running while throwing things, including plastic bottles and palm fronds, at Metro buses. One hit a bus with a piece of wood.

More police cars streamed north on Rampart Boulevard and west on 6th Street. In Lafayette Park, several police jumped out with batons and tackled crowd members, arresting someone in the big pile. They chased reporters away.


Late Tuesday, Police Chief William J. Bratton, speaking at a hastily arranged news conference at MacArthur Park, promised a department review “to determine if the use of force was appropriate.”

He said police responded after “certain elements of the crowd ... began to create a series of disturbances.”

During that activity, Bratton said, “Missiles were being thrown at the officers, and officers [were] responding.”

Still, Bratton said, the demonstrators creating problems were few and “that the vast, vast majority of the people who were here were behaving appropriately.”


L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was traveling in El Salvador at the start of a nine-day trade mission, called the MacArthur Park incident an aberration in an otherwise calm protest.

“This was a most unfortunate end to a very peaceful day,” Villaraigosa said in San Salvador. “Order has been fully restored. The situation in the neighborhood is presently calm. There continues to be a police presence in the neighborhood.”

Villaraigosa said he asked Bratton, who was scheduled to join the mayor in El Salvador and Mexico, to remain in Los Angeles to oversee a “complete and comprehensive review of this incident, including deployment, tactics and use of force.”

The mayor said he also was calling for the Police Commission to assess what happened.


The incident capped a day of disappointment for march organizers, who -- along with Los Angeles police and other officials -- mobilized for massive crowds that did not materialize, and pro-immigrant activists pondered whether their movement had fizzled.

As marchers waved U.S. flags and pro-immigrant placards along Broadway in one march and Vermont Avenue in the other, their relatively small numbers helped officials avoid extensive street closures and traffic gridlock. More than 60 bus lines were disrupted, however.

The sparse turnouts left marchers and pundits wrestling with questions about the pro-immigrant movement’s future.

Many voiced their theories about why so few marchers showed up: fear of deportation. Frustration over lack of progress. Internal infighting among activists. Scant support from the Spanish-language media. Absence of a single unifying threat, such as tough new legislation.


“We’ve just lost the momentum,” said Armando Navarro, a UC Riverside ethnic studies professor. “The infighting has become chronic. There’s no consensus, no unanimity. Here we are, in the middle of a storm about immigration reform and we have no ship.”

Navarro said that this year’s rallies had all fallen short of last year’s numbers.

Louis DiSipio, a UC Irvine political science professor, was more sanguine about the state of the immigrant rights movement.

He said that marchers will turn out when it matters, such as at last year’s successful effort to stop legislation that would have criminalized illegal migrants.


“Right now is not one of those moments” because Congress has yet to solidify its immigration proposals this year, DiSipio said. “My expectation, based on how effective [organizers] were in a crunch last year, is that they can again turn people out when they need to.”

Javier Rodriguez, a spokesman for the March 25 Coalition that organized the downtown march, said he was “totally satisfied” with the turnout, which police estimated at 25,000. Rodriguez, whose group called for a May Day boycott of work, school and consumer spending, said that droves of downtown businesses and other parts of the economy were shut down.

Other immigrant rights organizers have been downplaying turnout estimates for weeks, saying that marches are no longer the best tool to reach the pro-immigrant movement’s goal: comprehensive legislation to offer a path to citizenship for the nation’s about 11 million illegal migrants and an increase in family and worker visas.

Many activists, including members of pro-immigrant groups and labor unions as well as the Spanish-language radio personalities who helped mobilize crowds last year, have shifted their focus from marches to legislative lobbying, voter registration and civic participation.


On that score, they claim success. About 54,000 immigrants applied for citizenship in the Los Angeles region between January and March of this year, a 149% increase over last year, said Marcelo Gaete of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. And 87,000 Latinos registered to vote in Los Angeles County between last March and October, he said.

The Latino “community is moving, but it’s moving in terms of increasing civic participation and becoming an integral part of the conversation on immigration reform,” Gaete said.

Those who chose not to march Tuesday cited various reasons.

At a day laborer gathering spot outside a Home Depot in Los Angeles, dozens of men waited for work. One worker yelled, “Anyone going to the marches? Let’s go!”


But no one followed.

The scene was vastly different from May 1 last year, when the center was virtually empty.

Antonio Hernandez, a 37-year-old El Salvador native who gave his middle name because he feared immigration authorities, said he marched last year but chose not to this time.

Last year’s demonstrations made the situation worse for undocumented immigrants like him, he said. Landlords don’t want to rent to them and employers don’t want to hire them, he said, and more bosses are checking identifications because they don’t want to risk getting fined or arrested for hiring illegal workers, he said.


“Every day things are worse,” Hernandez said.

Other immigrants wondered if the movement had lost its muscle because it had become too splintered or Latino-centric.

A second march, to MacArthur Park, which was sponsored by the Multiethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network, was more diverse.

The crowd, estimated at 10,000 people, marched to the sound of drums, horns and chanted slogans. It included Jewish refugees and immigrants from South Korea, the Philippines, Malawi and other countries.


Other rallies were held in Santa Ana and Riverside.

Agustin Martinez, a 33-year-old Mexican immigrant and a Vernon baker, faulted the greater number of smaller rallies this year for diffusing the energy of the immigrant rights movement.

He and others also blamed Spanish-language radio for not promoting the downtown rally like it did last year.

KSCA-FM (101.9) radio personality Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, who reaches one of the nation’s largest Spanish-speaking audiences, agreed that the movement’s growing decentralization made it more difficult to rally people.


“Before, it was only one event,” Sotelo said. “Now, I have to find a way to support the thousands of organizations who support immigration reform.”

Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Tami Abdollah, Jonathan Abrams, Tony Barboza, John Beckham, Jennifer Delson, Anna Gorman, David Haldane, Erika Hayasaki, P.J. Huffstutter, Steve Hymon, Evelyn Larrubia, Jill Leovy, Patrick McGreevy, Charles Proctor, Sam Quinones, Valerie Reitman, James Ricci, Carla Rivera, Joel Rubin, Louis Sahagun, Stuart Silverstein, Ashley Surdin, Adrian Uribarri and Richard Winton.