On Scene: Separate protests in Los Angeles highlight a division over tactics

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In Los Angeles today, the dividing line between the major factions in the immigration reform movement came into stark relief. The militant Great American Boycott organizers held a noon rally downtown for students and immigrant workers and their supporters who stayed away from school, work, restaurants and stores to dramatize the economic clout of immigrants. Their protest rally attracted large numbers, with many downtown small businesses shut down and major streets closed near city hall and the one-mile march route. Posters promoting the noon rally featured a stop sign printed with the words: "NO work; NO school; NO shopping; NO selling; STOP the RACIST Sensenbrenner Bill."

Edward Headington, spokesman for one of the Boycott organizers, the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), described the scene for TIME.com from his position in the middle of the march that clogged streets downtown near City Hall: "It's hard to tell how many people are here and we haven't gotten any estimates yet from the police. There haven't been any incidents. It's very peaceful, but very loud. There are a lot of people wearing white shirts in the crowd and more American flags are being waved than any other. But there are flags from other countries."

About the split in opinion over the boycott, Headington said: "It's not a monolithic Latino community. We respect the other groups' rights. It's a matter of what fits for you, whether you want to take the day off or participate at the end of the day. But we think our march is resonating with more people."

Nativo Lopez, MAPA president was standing in the middle of a jam-packed Spring Street with marchers shouting in the background when he spoke to TIME.com. He said his group had to leave the main protest route along Broadway because, he said enthusiastically, "there were so many people, we couldn't move!" He dismissed worries that the boycotts would provoke a backlash against immigration reform. "We've been living with the backlash for years," he said. "But now people are losing their fear of organizing and exercising their constitutional rights so that the voice of the immigrants are being heard. We hope that Americans will appreciate the role of immigrants in the economy by observing their absence today."

Taking a more moderate stand on the "Day Without Immigrants" is Angela Sanbrano, executive director of Carecen, or Central American Resource Center, a Los Angeles Latino immigrant community services organization. Sanbrano was one of the organizers of the March 25 demonstration that attracted more than 500,000 marchers to downtown L.A., but this time her group and others have distanced themselves from the more militant boycott organizers. They formed the We Are America Coalition, which planned a separate march along Wilshire Blvd. in midtown Los Angeles for 4 p.m. — after school hours and closer to quitting time for most jobholders. "We are not against the boycott," Sanbrano told TIME.com. "We just want to make sure that people have different options, because some workers will be fired if they take a day off and some students will be reprimanded by their parents and sanctioned by the schools for being absent today without permission. We want to give them another option for civic participation today. This is just part of our longer-term strategy. We are saying, 'Today we march, tomorrow we vote.'

"Some people think there may be a contradiction," Sanbrano added, "between saying we are here to work, are part of the economy and are very proud of being part of the U.S. and then turning around and striking. What we want to do is raise the consciousness about the contributions of immigrant laborers. The immigrant community and its allies are basically saying they are critical to this country because of the contributions the immigrants make to the economy in terms of their buying power and they work they do at hotels, restaurants, shops and homes, and that they have earned the right to be respected. By the end of the day we would like to see that Congress gets the message that it is critical that they come up with immigration reform that allows these people to stay in the United States and work with dignity."

There are early signs that the effects of the boycott were being felt on city services. Though the information remains unverified by the L.A. Dept. of Transporation, Sanbrano and Mike Garcia, head of local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, both say they received reports this morning that bus ridership in the city is down substantially. "We were told that buses are carrying only 15% of the usual volume of riders," said Sanbrano. She also received reports that at the city's big wholesale produce market downtown, the L.A. Terminal, sales activity was light, with many out-of-state truckers arriving to find no one to unload their cargo and few buyers. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service later reported that sales were down between 75% and 95% compared to a normal Monday.

One of the city's most popular radio DJ's, Eddie "el Piolin" Sotelo, who stirred passions and whipped up enthusiasm for the March 25 boycott, didn't report to his mike this morning, in support of the boycott, and the station aired a previously taped show. Meanwhile, over the weekend, some members of the We Are America coalition were disheartened to hear that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would be traveling to Dallas for NFL meetings, rather than participating in their afternoon march. Villaraigosa told TIME.com in March that he preferred to lobby for the McCain-Kennedy Senate bill on immigration reform rather than backing a May 1 protest that encouraged kids to miss school or adults to skip work. This weekend, he again urged youngsters to delay demonstrations until after school and asked those who chose to demonstrate to remain peaceful and to carry American flags. In the morning, Villaraigosa told TIME.com that he would monitor the demonstrations from City Hall. But late in the afternoon he made a surprise appearance, addressing the crowd in shirtsleeves and sounding like a passionate partner in their cause: "We come to work," he said. "We come for a better life."