Eric Mann: “Twenty years after the Watts rebellions of 1966, black unemployment in South Central Los Angeles has remained virtually unchanged. The main culprits—the closing of Bethlehem Steel, Goodyear and Firestone Rubber, and GM’s Southgate plant. These plants provided good paying unionized jobs, and their workers were stable and creative members of the community.”
Eric Mann wrote the quote above in 1986, a bit before the 1992 LA Riots / Rebellion. In 2019, South Central now South LA still struggles with a job crisis. What has changed is an influx of migrants largely from Central America, marginalized by our constitution, unable to fully participate in building a new South LA. What is the grassroots process by which “illegal” migrants can regenerate a community / district / region’s economy? When the political process is rigged both against legal citizens especially against migrants, and their solidarity should be the way forward? Would offering a first solution to “what process” mentioned above not be offering a solution to a deep and larger crisis?
Life as an “illegal” migrant. A migrant must negotiate a livelihood with the powerful. Powerful here means those who can navigate a city legally without worry and are stable and settled in identity and material life. This negotiation is stunted by a migrant’s illegality despite a migrant”s participation in building the commons. So, despite the fact that interest in the commons (language, economy, neighborhood) intersect and overlap a migrant is never truly able to negotiate for example where one lives, even if this growth has been stunted by the legals, ie a mix of political apathy and corporatism. This creates a paralysis in parts of the body of a city, on top of another paralysis, that of community left behind by corporatism and prejudice. In a republic supposedly founded with the ideas of the enlightenment in mind, in other words under the sign of reason, we perform tribalist citizenship, as some sort of blood rite. Instead, we should allow migration to replenish this country perpetually by allowing migrants to negotiate its present and fate, instead of sitting outside of the boundaries of negotiation.
Let’s concern ourselves with the city as an organizational category, and how migrants are organized (fated) to exist in a new city. Here in this city exchanges between different groups are conflictual and inexistant, and one side is not able to negotiate the city with the other. Certain institutions should stand in the way of such arbitrariness and conflict but the current American crisis is a crisis of many of its institutions that have left the grassroots fighting for a new society. Let us use citizen and participant interchangeably. In this city Migrants are citizens in the economic sense: they (without othering) pay sales tax, labor, consume supply which allows our society to finance itself, produce demand, and help landlords pay property taxes. It’s as simple as that, as Richard Wolff argues in his video on the economics of migration. Politically, however, migrants are excluded from fully participating, though many migrants do for Unions and other political associations. The migrant perspective is dangerously pushed out of the political equation, and has never been allowed to develop our society as part of the demos, for what is citizenship if not for development. What if migrants were granted political citizenship by virtue of being economic citizens? A cosmopolity would emerge, one with a dynamic that addresses the urgency in poverty, and poverty and migration’s perspective on government.
A hybrid would also emerge anywhere, as if already has in the city of Los Angeles, a hybrid that connects migrants with non migrants to produce territories of right and life that can negotiate with political power. This hybrid can be a site, a location, for building future just and prosperous America if embraced, instead of it being a site of conflict between “ethnic groups” and legality versus illegality.
As Richad Sennett writes in The Fall of Public Man, stage and street come together and intermix in 18th century cities, guided by industrial capitalism. In the following essay, I will use Sennett’s above two observations to argue that in LA, a descendant of 18th century city life, theatricality is used to hide a private criticism of the “respectable classes”, a theatricality sourced in mass culture, and private criticism cultivated behind closed doors. This private criticism, in coexistence with the demise of public education and a quickly receding public sphere, is an enemy of both progress and change, but especially an enemy of the migrant. It is time for our democracy to put our private prejudices aside and empower and enfranchise migrants who have and continue to build this country outside of the boundaries of political negotiation (including political economy). It is what is humane, and what will perpetually replenish this country’s culture, economy, and politics.