05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Which Side Are You On?

Having spent most of March 21st (the day health care reform passed in the House and the day of the immigration rights march) inside the boiler room vote whipping operation, I missed most of the action on the streets, but a friend of mine who was at the march was telling me about how striking the contrast was between the immigration reform rally and the tea partiers gathered outside the Capitol building to protest the health care vote. The biggest difference, of course, was the size of the two crowds, the 200,000 on the side of immigration reform vs. several hundred tea partiers. But that wasn't what struck her.

"In our rally, the crowd was incredibly diverse - plenty of Latinos, of course, but a really tremendous cross-section of nationalities and backgrounds and religious faiths. A lot of young people, but a good cross-section of older people. Many immigrants, naturally, but a large number of clearly non-immigrant supporters as well.

"Beyond the demographic diversity, thought, it was striking how upbeat the really was. People were determined to get immigration reform passed, and there was some disappointment that it hadn't yet been a priority, but the crowd was happy, proud to be there, and confident that the country would do right by them."

The contrast could not have been sharper with the tea partiers. She didn't see a single non-white face, and saw very few young people. But the spirit of the crowd more than the demographics was what was most striking: that sense of bitterness, fear, and hate that was evident in their faces and remarks as the pro-immigration crowd passed by them by.

I was thinking this must have been the feeling held by civil rights marchers in looking at the pro-segregation crowds in the 1950s and '60s. In spite of the law, and the police, and decade after decade of oppression being against them, which side was more hopeful, and which side was more fearful in those marches? Which side had more joy and which side had more hate? The answer is obvious, now as it was then. The question for our times is the same question earlier generations of Americans had to answer: which side do you want to be on? The question goes far beyond the relatively easy question (for many of us) of which group of demonstrators you would have wanted to align yourself with on March 21st. The bigger question is whether we want to be aligned more broadly with the forces trying to change America vs. those not only with the most extreme forces of reaction and fear, but also with the money and power that is aligned with those forces. Insurance companies, the big banks, oil companies, and the Chamber of Commerce fuel the fear with their misleading ads and support of Dick Armey-style groups and Limbaugh/Beck style media. They don't want any important change to happen in America, so they are doing what they can to stir up anger and bitterness and fear at any kind of change.

The Republicans have clearly chosen a side -- the side of "Hell, no" as Sarah Palin put it in her rally with John McCain -- the side of fear. But too many Democratic politicians have had trouble choosing a side. Some of them don't want to, because they want to keep the big business campaign contributors flowing into their re-election efforts, and they see the intensity on the fear mongers side, and it scares them.

Here's the problem: trying to make everyone happy in times like these doesn't work. The tea partiers won't compromise, and big business will only compromise as much as they are forced to - they won't give up any power or money willingly. To bring real change to America, the change Barack Obama promised, Democrats will have to make a choice: which side are you on?

It takes some courage to walk away from big money contributions, and from DC conventional wisdom. But at the end of the day, looking at both history and our future, this shouldn't be too hard a choice.

Given how I was raised, it's the most obvious choice in the world for me. I am on the side of the immigrants marching that day because I was taught that I would be judged by whether I welcomed the stranger and gave aid to those who had less than me. I am on the side of the health care reformers because I was taught to take care of the sick and hurt and those in need. I was taught that kindness is better than cruelty, that generosity is better than selfishness, that love is better than hate. I was taught to believe this country is a beloved community, where we all respect each other and look out for each other.

It's easy to be on the other side of a movement that spits on people, calls others derogatory names, and throws rocks through windows. It's easy to be on the other side of the movement whose leaders are cheered when they make fun of people and talk about "the lions eating the weak." And it's easy to be on the other side of the big money that runs ads that plays to people's fears.

Which side are you on? This should be a very easy choice.