Twenty-five years ago this month, like so many of my fellow Angelenos marching in the streets, I was angry, sad, and ready to act: California voters had just passed Proposition 187 â€” etching hostility toward undocumented immigrants into law, legalizing discrimination, and seeking to deny the humanity of people who lived in our communities, worked with us in offices and on manufacturing floors, and sat next to us in school.
I had taken time away from my graduate studies abroad to work for six months on Kathleen Brownâ€™s campaign for governor and to campaign against Prop. 187.Â I returned to Oxford University disappointed but energized, sad but hungry for change.
A few weeks later, I was literally hungry â€” adopting the tactic of community organizers through the years: I led a three-day fast and teach-in, in solidarity with immigrants in California and around the world.Â Prop. 187 wasnâ€™t just offensive to our values and our ideals of openness and belonging, as it was for so many Angelenos and Californians, the issue was personal for me too.
I may have been a continent and an ocean away from the front lines of the movement, but I couldnâ€™t help but think of my grandfather, Salvador â€” whose mother fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution and carried him north across the border, determined to build a new life in peace. My grandfather was a Dreamer before the term existed, and he built a career, a home, fought as a soldier in WWII and ultimately wrote a place for himself and his family in America. Yet here we were, all these decades later, about to turn children away from their classrooms and human beings away from our hospitals.
Prop. 187 would be ruled unconstitutional, and it never took effect in our state. And maybe fasting for three days in my early twenties didnâ€™t change the world, but it reminded all of us that we are called to stand up against moments of hate and division, and to stand up for the belief that our nation, at its best, is one in which we all belong.
Some 25 years later that lesson resonates again. But in California today, we are a different place: what had been seen as ground zero for anti-immigrant sentiment has become the most welcoming state in America. In the six years I have served as mayor, Los Angeles has put historic protections into place for undocumented residents, helped thousands navigate the naturalization process, reaffirmed our policy that ensures police donâ€™t enforce civil immigration laws, and started a fund to help our neighbors fight deportations.
We won those victories in part because the campaign against Prop. 187 â€” and our determination to keep fighting â€” helped a lot of us come of age in activism and politics. Those battles put into focus the real-world consequences of hateful rhetoric, and showed us what it takes to defeat the movements that are strengthened by it.
And as our nation faces the next generation of those same forces today, we can draw out lessons of our experience in 1994 and its aftermath. Prop 187 might have provided the California Republican Party with a short term victory, but also assigned the party to a long-term defeat. No matter what party we belong to, basing progress on the exclusion or vilification of any group cannot be a recipe for long-term economic and social progress, let alone the maintenance of political power.
Californiaâ€™s experience in 1994 in many ways echoes the national conversation we are having today and reminds us about whatâ€™s necessary to keep our cities, states, and country on the right side of history: We have to organize across lines of faith and race. We have to build our base out of a cross-section of diverse communities.
We have to run for office, or get out the vote for our allies who do. We have to define the issues on our terms â€” in the language of justice and fairness, of doing whatâ€™s right and calling out whatâ€™s wrong. But we must refuse to be satisfied with simply protesting bad policy and disrupting the status quo; instead, we have to campaign to win, use politics for good, and prepare ourselves to play the long game. Because our opponents certainly arenâ€™t going to let up.
Every one of us reads the headlines, news crawls, and tweets of the present-day, so we donâ€™t have to repeat them here to underline a clear reality: the lessons learned and values nurtured a generation ago have never been more valuable to us than they are now.
With a White House willing and even eager to resurrect, nationalize, and escalate the worst legacies of 25 years ago â€” itâ€™s up to us once again, and a new generation of activists and advocates, to put a stop to it.
Itâ€™s on us to summon and intensify the courage and determination we showed then. Itâ€™s our responsibility not simply to resist, but to persist in what we believe in. Itâ€™s our job to stay hungry, stay focused, and stay determined to build the America that Prop. 187 tried to deny: a place of compassion, freedom, and belonging.
Eric Garcetti is the mayor of Los Angeles.