At first it was comical. A version of John Lennon's 'All You Need is Love' blared from a public-address system as two sets of protesters--pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant--shouted at each other, not listening to a word each other was saying.
The scene played out downtown, behind the NBC building on Broadway, near one of the main entrances to Horton Plaza. The groups of protesters were confined to two zones, right next to one another, each encircled in yellow police tape, on a thin strip of public sidewalk fronting Horton Plaza. Most of the pro-immigrant activists were shouting across a narrow side street toward the property behind the NBC building, where well-scrubbed men and women were getting set to honor Pete Wilson, the former San Diego mayor, state assemblymember, U.S. senator and California governor, with a new bronze statue. The anti-immigrant crowd was shouting at the pro-immigrant group, and a few of the pro-immigrant activists were returning fire.
In addition to the screaming and hollering, there were bullhorns and drums, and the music was being used to drown it all out. It was a cacophony in the truest sense of the word--no worse place on Earth for Lennon's message for peace and harmony to be heard and heeded.
The music served as the overture for the statue-unveiling ceremony unfolding behind opaque, temporary fencing. The speakers were hoisted high enough so that they poked up and over the fence and were pointed in the direction of the protesters. I'm not qualified to speak for John Lennon's spirit, but he's been my hero since I was 10 years old, and my guess is that he wouldn't have approved. Of any of it.
'All You Need is Love' was written in 1967 for Our World, the first-ever live television program to be broadcast globally. The idea was to create an unambiguous song that would be understood by people of different cultures. Lennon's guiding philosophy was that we're all the same, no matter our size, shape, color, gender, bank account or national affiliation.
And here, his revolutionary song preaching togetherness was being used to help honor a man who exploited cultural fear to further his personal political agenda. As governor in the mid-'90s, in the wake of a statewide recession and on the precipice of his aborted run for the White House, Wilson embraced Prop. 187, which sought to bar illegal immigrants from getting access to non-emergency healthcare, education and welfare and establish a process for reporting 'suspected' illegal immigrants to the authorities. Thankfully, the proposed law, which voters passed, failed to withstand constitutional challenges.
The only song that would have been less appropriate is Lennon's 'Imagine' ('Imagine there's no countries / It's easy if you try').
As is often the case, bad behavior was exhibited on all sides--except maybe the police. (They cuffed and stuffed one woman who refused to be confined to the caution-tape cage, but I missed the beginning of the incident.)
My absolute favorite character in this absurdist street-theater production was a Minuteman whose name I didn't catch. I'll call him 'Gomer.' He was among the counter-protesters yelling at the Wilson protesters and one of two people I saw wearing shirts that read: 'HEY LA RAZA!!! I'm the Continent Stealing Redneck European White Devil With The Blue Eyes. What are you going to do about it?'
I approached Gomer for an interview, but he declined, commenting in short bursts of speech about media bias. I was interested in discussing that matter further because I have some hardened thoughts about the myth of journalistic objectivity, but meaningful conversation was difficult, thanks to Gomer's approach-and-retreat method of verbal intercourse--he'd make a comment then walk away, and when I'd reply, he'd swoop back in for another attack and bail again. Interesting.
That was the first of several encounters with Gomer. Later, he witnessed a young woman from the anti-Wilson side say something to me, which confirmed his conspiracy theory. 'Your cover is blown!' he said. 'Your cover is blown!'
I'll admit it--Gomer was getting on my nerves, and the situation escalated a bit. He puffed up his substantial front side and got all up in my grill while a young female redneck-in-training videotaped the brewing conflict--standard operating procedure on both sides of the immigration debate.
'What are you gonna do?' I asked Gomer.
'What are you gonna do?' he replied.
And just like that, I was back in junior high school.
But the rednecks haven't completely cornered the market on foolishness. In fact, it was the shrill protesters who topped everyone on Saturday, and I'm not even talking about the loudmouth who somehow managed to maintain control of the bullhorn and whose amplified voice reminded me of one of those war movies in which totalitarian propaganda blares at the citizenry via loudspeakers.
No, I'm talking about the signs depicting Wilson as a Nazi. Yes, Wilson is guilty of whipping up fear and loathing of Mexican immigrants to boost his political fortunes. The Nazis systematically murdered 6 million innocent people. If you're going to equate the two, I'm sorry, but I can't stand with you.
It never ceases to amaze me how easily liberal protesters can make themselves irrelevant.
To his credit, Nicole Murray Ramirez, a leader in San Diego's gay community who was there protesting Wilson's complicity in police harassment of gay citizens in the 1970s, distanced himself from the Hitler nonsense, telling me that he found the comparison offensive.
The protesters' exaggerated rhetoric makes it harder to criticize Wilson himself for what he did on Saturday. I wasn't allowed into the ceremony because I hadn't signed up in advance, but a news cameraman told me Wilson mocked the protesters, commenting about how nice it is to live in a country where a person is free to act like a 'horse's ass.'
So, let's talk about Wilson.
History has shown that Wilson is an ideological chameleon. According to author Mike Davis, who co-wrote Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, Wilson changed his skin whenever it served his needs. He was ushered into politics by a faction of San Diego's moneyed elite that sought to fill a power vacuum in the wake of big-money businessman C. Arnholt Smith's corporate-corruption-fueled demise. Wilson fashioned himself into a moderate Republican and exploited the electorate's fear that unfettered sprawl was going to make San Diego Los Angeles South. As mayor, he focused on revitalizing downtown. And that was a good thing, even though gaudy Horton Plaza was the main economic engine.
But Wilson soon had his sights on the governor's mansion, and he turned to the corporate developers for backing. One result was University Town Center, a sprawl project if ever there was one.
When that first gubernatorial bid failed, he returned to the mayor's office and became tough on crime--and tough on gays?--so that he wouldn't look like a wimp when compared to guys like George Deukmejian, the former attorney general who was California's governor from 1983 to 1991.
By the time he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982, Wilson was a frothing right-winger--no trace left of the moderate. As quoted by Davis, Wilson chided his opponent, Jerry Brown: 'California cannot afford a U.S. senator who takes his farm policy from César Chávez, his social policy from Tom Hayden and his foreign policy from Jane Fonda.'
The attack on Chávez, who championed civil rights for Latino farm workers, was perhaps a precursor to Prop. 187, which demonized illegal immigrants in the minds of many Californians still recovering from the recession of the early 1990s. (Wilson also balanced the state budget on the backs of college students so that he didn't have to confront the prison-industrial complex that had taken control of Sacramento, and he revoked state funding for higher education for inmates.)
Wilson apparently saw Prop. 187 as his ticket to the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, and he had the nerve to announce his candidacy in Battery Park, New York City, using as a backdrop the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of this country's former acceptance of immigrants. Go ahead, make the distinction between legal and illegal immigration--but it used to be a hell of a lot easier to get in than it is now. Latino immigrants risk their lives to get in illegally because it can take more than 20 years to get in legally.
That's who Pete Wilson is to me--an opportunist who was willing to sacrifice the future prospects and good health of hundreds of thousands of innocent children in order to get ahead. So, yes, Gomer, I am biased--that man does not deserve a statue, in my opinion.
But the whole thing is something of sham, anyway. The statue was paid for by friends of Wilson, and its home is on property owned by a developer, the Irvine Company, on whose board of directors Wilson sits. It's not a public tribute; it's an obnoxious exercise in self-congratulation and elitist backslapping.
And Saturday was just another day in America.