A forum to discuss the viewpoints of Latinos and African Americans on such issues as immigration and jobs attracted about 200 people -- and 20 protesters -- Saturday night to a mosque near downtown Los Angeles.
The event was intended to be the first of monthly "black and brown roundtables" on topics that tend to divide and unite the ethnic groups, which share neighborhoods in South Los Angeles and other parts of the region, according to organizer Najee Ali.
Ali, an African American activist and director of Project Islamic HOPE, a nonprofit civil rights organization, said his goal was to have a frank forum, even if it triggered verbal fireworks.
"I don't want a meeting where everyone gets together and sings 'Kumbaya.' This is a serious discussion; no holds barred," he said before the meeting, which was sponsored by the Latino and African American Leadership Alliance. "The only way both groups can understand each other is an honest discussion."
In fact, tempers flared before the meeting started.
Protesters from the Minuteman Project -- which wants to stop illegal immigration by monitoring the border -- lined Exposition Boulevard outside the Masjid Omar ibn Al-Khattab Mosque near USC. They waved American flags and carried placards bearing slogans such as "Secure the Border" and "Stop Illegal Immigration."
As Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), who is African American, walked into the mosque, he was taunted by Marvin Stewart, a spokesman for the protesters. "You have sold the black man out," said Stewart, who also is African American.
Later, Dymally described the protesters as "misguided."
"The immigration issue is a red herring," he said, adding that healthcare and education were more important to the black community.
Among the other speakers at the event were Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and mayors Leticia Vasquez of Lynwood and Eric Perrodin of Compton.
Also present was 45th Assembly District candidate Christine Chavez, a labor leader and granddaughter of United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.
Tension between blacks and Latinos has risen as immigrants from Mexico and Central America have moved into traditionally African American neighborhoods.
Some blacks say they are losing jobs, housing and educational opportunities. Blacks and Latinos have brawled in the region's schools and prisons.
Recent mass rallies for immigrant rights brought renewed attention to some of these issues.
Most speakers Saturday appealed for blacks and Latinos to stay united.
"It's important we build relations with each other and not let people pull us apart," said Perrodin of Compton, where he said the population is 60% Latino and 40% black.
However, Romero said immigration remains a hot topic that divides even Latinos.
"I think it's real. I don't think we can gloss it over and say, 'Let's hold hands,' " she said.
She added, however, that it is still important for the two ethnic groups to come together on raising the minimum wage, keeping good jobs in the United States, improving education and reducing the disproportionately high number of minorities who are incarcerated as a result of the state's three-strikes law.