California dream of fight for rights

June 30, 1995

Young volunteers from all over America - many of them students - are flocking to California this summer to fight ballot initiatives against immigrant rights and affirmative action which they regard as reactionary.

They are heading west in the same way as young people went south in 1964 to support black people's struggle for civil rights. The California Summer Project is self-consciously modelled on the Mississippi Freedom Summer: the volunteers are living in the homes of local activists and are being dispersed around the state to work on assigned projects. Many of them learned about the existence of the California project via the Internet.

The volunteers, who are arriving daily, are helping immigrants to register to vote. They are organising workers and helping to run workshops for people interested in becoming naturalised Americans. The project is also thinking about a "counter-ballot initiative" to preserve racial and gender preference in recruitment, university admissions and awarding contracts.

The volunteers will take part in protests and demonstrations on the grounds that change requires direct action, according to Libby Cooper, director of the project and a human rights lawyer.

The main focus of the campaign is the "xenophobic consequences" of recent ballot initiatives that have undermined civil rights in California, said Ms Cooper. She was referring to the big vote in favour of Proposition 187 last year, a measure which sought to curtail social services for illegal immigrants. It has been halted temporarily by a court order while it is examined for its constitutionality.

Another initiative, expected to come before California's voters next year, would repeal affirmative action programmes. Earlier this month the black leader Jesse Jackson, a Mississippi Summer veteran, spoke at a pro-affirmative action rally in the state. He said he hoped a "spirit of selflessness and risk" would be rekindled in a generation of young people who "came to believe that greed is beautiful".

Volunteers range from teenagers to pensioners. The majority are undergraduates or law school students. Most of them are too young to remember the summer of 1964, but like Amy Dalton, who has just completed her first year at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, they want to do something.

Sammie Wicks, 51, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said she had got involved because she had been feeling increasingly "helpless and hopeless about the New Right".

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