by Tim Murphy
Eric Gay/Associated Press
On a Thursday night in May, around a dozen high-school and college-age Latino students were crowded into a small workshop adjoining an East Austin art space, getting a crash course on digital organizing. As they munched on pizza, Tania Mejia, a former staffer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, led a discussion on the finer points of tweeting: how to keep your language concise, how to frame a photo, what kinds of hashtags to use. A piñata resembling President Donald Trump dangled from the ceiling. At the end of the class, they split into small groups and took turns crafting personalized messages and videos.
The point of the lesson wasn’t to teach millennials to use smartphones—a superfluous task if ever there was one—but to help them to think of their devices as political tools. And the group sponsoring the event had a specific political fight in mind. The students were enrolled in a six-week organizing boot camp hosted by Jolt, a nonprofit that aims to mobilize young Latinos against anti-immigrant politics. A few weeks earlier, Gov. Greg Abbott had signed into law SB 4, which, when it takes effect in September, will allow law enforcement officers to ask suspects, witnesses, and victims of crimes for proof of citizenship. Cities such as Austin that offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants will face criminal penalties.
Some of the students who had signed up for Jolt’s program were undocumented; others came from families that had been in Texas for generations. But they had all been driven to political activism by a profound sense of uncertainty about what the state’s—and the nation’s—rightward lurch meant for people like them.
“It changed everything in my life,” said Alex Castaneda, a high-school senior from the Austin suburbs. Castaneda is an American citizen but his mother isn’t, and he fears that a deportation would divide his family. “She has everything planned already for if anything happens,” he explained after the class. “She has everything ready for me, because I’m basically gonna be the only one staying here if they end up leaving.”
Jolt, launched last fall, has been at the forefront of a burgeoning Latino resistance in Texas, first in opposition to the Trump administration and now to a Texas legislature that finally jumped off the nativist cliff it had been teetering on for years. Members have registered voters and marched in the streets—the blocking and tackling of organizing—but also participated in more headline-grabbing displays. Jolt protesters inside the state capitol helped disrupt legislative proceedings on the final day of the regular session in June. (The demonstrations so infuriated one Republican state representative that he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement.) When the Texas legislature reconvened for a special session in July, teenage Jolt activists donned bright quinceañera hoop skirts and danced outside the south steps of the capitol.
Quinceañeras are fighting back against SB4 & all attacks on the Latino community! Join the fight: https://t.co/DvhEFDUH0d #15contraSB4 pic.twitter.com/4M6v2y89E5
— Jolt Texas ⚡️ (@jolt_texas) July 20, 2017
The digital organizing training I sat in on (other sessions focused on get-out-the-vote tactics, Hispanic organizing history, and how to give a media interview) was part of a slow build-up to what Jolt was calling “Freedom Summer,” inspired by the 1964 voter-registration push in Mississippi. The group aims to have 125 voter registrars signed up in Austin and Dallas by the end of the year and 2,000 active members. Its 2017 efforts are a trial run for a far larger effort ahead of next year’s elections.
In a majority-minority state still dominated by an almost entirely white Republican government, activists believe SB 4 offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to mobilize disengaged communities. They talk openly of Texas following the lead of California and Arizona, two states where, to differing degrees, hardline immigration laws sparked a generational political awakening among Hispanic residents and toppled the chief backers of those policies. But such an awakening is contingent on organizers tackling a host of institutional and cultural barriers that have stymied party types for years. If SB 4 is to have that same impact on Texas, it will be because groups like Jolt figured out how to do it.
“Unless there are substantial resources invested in the state to organize, it’s not gonna happen. And then we would be wasting the best opportunity that we’ve had in a generation.”
Jolt was the creation of Cristina Tzintzun, a 35-year-old Austinite with a background in immigrant labor organizing. Tzintzun got her start in Texas politics in 2002, when she co-founded a group called the Workers Defense Project, which pressured the state and local governments to enact safety and wage protections for construction workers, many of whom were undocumented. Texas’ enormous growth over the last two decades corresponded with a massive construction boom in places like Austin, which WDP used as leverage to push through a slate of new regulations to benefit workers—things like mandatory paid breaks and safety training courses. One of its signature accomplishments was an Austin city ordinance that mandated that WDP observers be allowed to monitor working conditions and guard against wage theft at businesses that receive tax breaks.
The problem WDP tackled is the same one facing immigrant advocates in the Trump age: how to expand and protect the rights of a group of people with little agency in the actual political system. WDP functioned as a union for people, namely undocumented workers, who were ostracized by traditional unions. In that way, it built a cohesive community out of a group that was not supposed to be organized. Its leaders also understood the power of a good visual in defining the narrative; after WDP published a report documenting abysmal safety conditions at many Texas work sites, Tzintzun held a press conference at the state capitol in front of 142 pairs of empty construction boots—one for every worker who had died on the job in Texas over the previous 12 months.
Aiming to expand her work to the broader Latino community, Tzintzun began laying the groundwork for a new group last summer, expecting to roll it out gradually after Clinton was elected president. She anticipated going on the offensive; Hispanic voters were going to power Clinton’s victory, and they would be in a position to push for—and push through—immigration reform. Six months pregnant with her first child on election night, she watched the returns with her husband, who immigrated from Mexico as a child.
“I couldn’t stop bawling, and after three days of crying, I was like, ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna do the only thing I know how to do that makes me stop crying, which is organize,” she recalled, when we met at a coffee shop in Austin this summer. Tzintzun and some friends hastily put together an anti-Trump rally the weekend after the election, expecting 100 people to show. When 2,000 people attended, she decided to launch Jolt immediately.
Jolt was a new addition to a constellation of larger groups organizing Texas Latinos in different but generally aligned ways. Mi Familia Vota, a national organization, focuses on voter education and registration in the state’s major cities. United We Dream advocates for undocumented youths. Tzintzun too would focus on young Latinos, but with a deeper concentration on training them to be able to organize their own communities year-round. The idea is to do the deep work that parties and Democratic groups have traditionally neglected. Hence the six-week boot camp.
Tzintzun’s view is that efforts to mobilize Latinos in Texas tend to fail for a few principal reasons. One is that such programs are often run by outsiders, rather than organic outgrowths of their communities; another is that Democrats expect their opponents to do their work for them—the idea that people will turn out just because the alternatives are bad. “It’s not about showing up during one election cycle and just knocking on doors—that’s tactical,” Tzintzun says. “But when your neighbors don’t vote, your co-workers don’t vote, your family members don’t vote, for you to just go out and go do that on your own is something that I think is highly unlikely.”
Hence the decision to concentrate their energy on young people—49 percent of Texans under 19 are Hispanic—and to organize around not just politics but art and culture too. If Texans view SB 4 as simply a technical measure that affects law enforcement officers and select groups of immigrants, the opposition will fail. For the backlash to produce something tangible, the law has to be understood as a sweeping assault on Latino identities.
In this approach, organizers like Tztintzun believe they’re following a road map that has worked elsewhere. Progressives in Texas speak in broad strokes about the parallels between SB 4 and California’s Prop 187, the 1994 bill cracking down on undocumented immigrants that helped swing a once-competitive state comfortably into the Democratic column. A more recent example is the backlash to Arizona’s SB 1070, a 2010 law similar to SB 4 that was designed to grant local law enforcement power to enforce federal immigration laws. Last fall, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the law’s most notorious advocate, was forced into retirement after 24 years in office by an energized Latino electorate. (Arpaio was convicted in July of criminal contempt in federal court and faces up to six years in prison.)
Arizona is a useful model for groups like Jolt because of the way the resistance there mixed politics with culture. One of Jolt’s first moves was to bring in organizers from Arizona who had worked on the anti-Arpaio campaign to help train volunteers.
Looking at the situation from afar, Tzintzun concluded that some of the most effective organizing against 1070 involved artists. Musicians organized a “sound strike” to discourage performances in the state—an economic measure as well as a gesture of solidarity. (Kanye West and Nine Inch Nails took part.) Many performers who did visit Arizona used their concerts to mobilize volunteers and raise money for resistance groups. Instead of attempting a sound strike in the nation’s second-largest state, Jolt is pushing a narrower boycott of businesses owned by legislators who voted for SB 4, starting with a chain of Dallas-area car dealerships.* (The sense that Latinos as a whole were under attack in Arizona and not just undocumented immigrants was fueled by the state government, which passed a new law in 2010 banning Mexican-American studies programs in public schools.)
Anti-Arpaio efforts also centered on younger voters as the entry point to the community. In 2012, a group called Adios Arpaio relied on undocumented teens to canvass neighborhoods and register voters. Last year, another anti-Arpaio effort called Bazta Arpaio, which specifically targeted Latino voters who had not voted before or didn’t show up to the polls in recent elections, bought a red mini-bus and drove around Latino areas blasting Selena as volunteers blanketed the streets.
“When people look at SB 1070 and Prop 187, the fast, easy narrative is these attacks came and then people woke up,” Tzintzun says. “The real story is the attacks came, and then you had invested local community leaders and organizations that dug in deep and dug in long to mobilize and engage the community.”
Even as Tzintzun and others work to build Latino progressives’ political power in Texas cities, conservatives are laying the groundwork to blunt the blue wave by stripping those cities of their political clout and consolidating power at the capitol. When the Texas legislature reconvened in July for a special session, Republican lawmakers, led by a state representative who once owned a construction business, took aim at Austin’s protections for immigrant workers—the ones pushed through by WDP five years ago. HB 164 would prohibit cities from implementing WDP’s worker-protection regulations. The bill would gut labor laws in the same way that SB 4 would eliminate city- and county-wide sanctuary policies and “bathroom bills” aim to block local civil-rights protections.
Real change could take a while. In the meantime, organizers in Texas have to wrestle with the consequences of the law and the reality of the new environment. Bending to pressure from immigrant groups, five of Texas’ six largest cities have sued the state over SB 4, but it is still set to take effect in September. And if even SB 4 goes away, ICE will still be around. When 15 millennial activists—including some Jolt members—were arrested outside the state capitol in Austin in late July, as part of a series of nationwide protests organized by a group called Movimiento Cosecha, they did so knowing that it could compromise their legal status and put them at risk of deportation. Texas’ golden opportunity is a race against time.
“They were able to turn it around in California after 187, Arizona after 1070, but there were resources put in there to do the voter registration, to do the get-out-the-vote, to do the voter education, to do the citizenship,” says Carlos Duarte, the Texas state director for Mi Familia Vota. “And the reality is the country and the community just expects us Latinos to turn out—just because—without resources? It doesn’t happen that way.”
He adds, “Unless there are substantial resources invested in the state to organize, it’s not gonna happen. And then we would be wasting the best opportunity that we’ve had in a generation.”