May 30, 2008

Day Laborers Search for Nonviolent Solutions

By Mark R Day

Recently, a deputy sheriff told a reporter that increased confrontations at area day labor sites between pro and anti-immigrant groups could lead to violence, even the loss of life.

These trends led some North County activists to plan a day long workshop on nonviolent strategies at Mission San Luis Rey near Oceanside that took place on May 18. The question for the organizers was whether or not day laborers, mostly from Mexico, would take readily to the teachings and practices of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez.

“I was amazed how well the men related to the workshop,” said Erik Olson Fernandez, the union organizer who coordinated the San Luis Rey event. “Not only did they engage in animated discussions. Several of them showed excellent leadership qualities that can be utilized in future struggles.”

To spark discussions, Olson Fernandez showed clips from local day labor sites, and two documentaries: the farm worker film, “Fighting for Our Lives,” and a sequence from “A Force More Powerful,” a classic film on nonviolent social struggles. The latter clip focused on black college students’ successful efforts to integrate lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee in 1960.

After viewing the Cesar Chavez clip, the workers noted an eerie similarity in the confrontations between hired Teamster thugs who attempted to break the UFW Coachella strike in 1973 and today’s Minutemen who frequently intimidate and provoke violence at day laborer sites. Both have taunted and bullied their adversaries, used obscene language and carried American flags as symbols of white supremacy.

Despite grower-inspired violence, beatings, and the death of a striker, the UFW won the elections at the grape ranches, due chiefly to intense organizing and the strikers’ adherence to the principles of nonviolence.

The San Luis Rey workshop was sponsored by the Coalition for Peace, Justice and Dignity, based in Vista, and the Oceanside office of the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA).

The day laborers learned that nonviolence, far from merely turning the other cheek, is a powerful force that demands tough discipline and organizational skills. “The whole idea was new to these men,” said Mario Herrera of CRLA. “They come from a background unfamiliar with nonviolence. I think they are inclined toward nonviolent organizing, but it will take more meetings and organizing to convince them. This was just a beginning.”

The San Luis Rey workshop focused on Martin Luther King’s six principles for nonviolent social change: information gathering, education, self-reflection, negotiation, direct action, and reconciliation.

“One of the hardest things is to reconcile with your opposition,” said Dorothy Johnson, an attorney with the CRLA who helped plan the workshop. “I know I don’t have to like the person who is the oppressor. But you have to respect them—and let them save face once you have achieved your goals.”

Johnson’s point was illustrated by the case of the Nashville student lunch counter sit-ins which were followed by a successful boycott of downtown businesses. The students spent weeks preparing for the sit-ins by training in a church basement. They then faced white violence, including a dynamite attack on the home of their attorney. They were arrested, and served jail time, but were strongly supported by Nashville’s black community.

Store owners were hit hard by the boycott. This led Nashville Mayor Ben West to order the desegregation of the lunch counters. After the students marched to City Hall, West conceded that segregation was morally wrong and shook hands with the students.

“At our workshop we captured attention of workers,” said Olson Fernandez. It appears that they want to do something, but need a little help. Ultimately, we have to confront the folks with the power who can change things here in North County. This was a great beginning.”

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