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Hoisting the flag in anger

ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

A protest in Leimert Park was messy, surreal, saddening -- and understandable.

April 26, 2006|ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

WELL, BLACK people have to be mad at somebody.

The antipathy toward Latino immigrants that has been building silently for years found full voice Sunday in an anti-immigration rally staged in Leimert Park, that grassy promontory in the Crenshaw district where black activists of all creeds and credibility levels come to say their piece or spread their word. The latest activist was Ted Hayes, founder of the Crispus Attucks Brigade, a black anti-immigration group that apparently formed for just this event. The group mounted a rally meant to focus free-floating black discontent about immigration, but it was something else entirely -- a messy, saddening, surreal mix of too many things, notably black nationalism twisted into my-country-right-or-wrong black patriotism.

This is an inversion that must have had Malcolm X spinning in his grave. As it happened, the black man carrying the biggest American flag among a sea of flags also wore a Malcolm X cap. He stood shoulder to shoulder with a couple of white Minutemen, motorcycle riders and a strident anti-immigration Latino activist. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

I should have seen this coming. I have been to many gatherings in Leimert over the years, several of which turned contentious as black people struggled to identify exactly who and what are the forces most responsible for a litany of problems.

On Sunday, there was the usual frantic distribution of fliers and handouts calling for black solidarity on a number of crises that weren't directly related to the topic at hand: reparations, criminal justice, three-strikes reform, foster care, black business promotion, environmental protection. They were all handily cataloged on one flier like a to-do list, a list that was officially posted generations ago and has grown ever since. Now there are causes that have permutated into other causes, and fewer people to carry them. And so a handful of blacks gathered in Leimert to publicly shift all that weight onto something else, and someone else.

It was inarguably deplorable and thoroughly American -- blaming a neighboring population for the ills of your own. The black people vigorously waving the Stars and Stripes certainly were claiming their birthright; it's just that their birthright is not as noble they imagine.

And yet I had to admit: They had a point. Much as I cringed at the broad condemnation of Latino immigrants by people who've endured so much condemnation and endure it still, I understood. I understood the raw anger at being consistently at the bottom of the economic food chain and watching yet another group moving up that chain, actually remaking it, with relative ease. I understood the loud, flag-waving insistence that the nation give its black citizens consideration above noncitizens. This is something the United States has never really done; U.S. citizenship has always been less about papers and more about race, privilege and perceptions of who belongs and who doesn't, and why.

That the super-patriots in Leimert even had to hold a news conference to ask for consideration -- this, not immigration, was the issue. By its very existence, the event made the painful point that blacks still belong least of all. The anxiety over that is justifiable. It's also different from the xenophobic anxiety of the white Minutemen who were ostensibly there to support the anti-immigration blacks but whose own law-and-order agenda hardly embraces the interests of any ethnic minorities. Such differences were never addressed, though they were sharply in the air.

But many who supported Hayes in spirit admitted the border was neither the beginning nor the end of the issue. One of the many tragedies of the rally was that it attracted not simply the fringe but rational black people who lack any other forum to vent their ambiguity on issues like illegal immigration.

Terry Anderson, a talk-show host and L.A. native who supports closing the borders, said recently that even if illegal immigration stopped tomorrow, there would be no guarantees that blacks would benefit dramatically. "But it couldn't get any worse for us," he added hopefully. "People would be forced to deal with us at least."

Maybe. What I know is that rightful black indignation is too quickly discredited by a wrong response, and Sunday in Leimert Park felt like a doozy. After an hour and a half, in one incongruous moment among many, some brigadiers hoisted their flags and marched solemnly around the perimeter of the park while an ensemble of drummers played a kind of African accompaniment.

I asked a friend whether the group was playing for or against the cause. "Those guys?" he said. "Neither. They're here every week. They play no matter what." We should all have such equanimity.

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