With Sunday's 15-mile walk from Livingston to Turlock, the March for California's Future is past the two-thirds mark in both distance and days of travel. The March is our quest to start a groundswell of support for fundamental change in the once "golden" state.
Since leaving Bakersfield on March 6th with our core group of seven marchers, we have covered 265 miles as of Sunday and stopped at 22 different sites in the San Joaquin Valley on our way to the state capitol in Sacramento, where we will hold a massive rally on April 21. More than 1,500 Californians have marched with us part of the way, and more will join us as we walk the rest of the way.
We draw inspiration for this walk from the famous marches for justice in the 1960s and particularly the 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. We are covering much of the same ground.
The farm workers of California had become the invisible element in the great agricultural boom of the Valley - and the large agribusiness corporations liked it just fine. Exploitation translated into higher profits. Most Californians were either unaware of the problems (no minimum wage, no overtime, no collective bargaining rights, long hours, no medical care and poor working conditions) or preferred to ignore it. Chavez's march up California Highway 99 to the Capitol grew stronger by the day and became a visible picture of the unseen costs associated with the fruit and vegetables we bought everyday. That march did not end the problem, but it was the tipping point in changing the dynamic for farm workers.
Today we are in need of another game changer in California. Lawmakers in Sacramento look inept and are viewed as a laughingstock by the whole country. This is due to the state's undemocratic requirements for two thirds of the legislature, rather than a simple majority, to pass a budget or restore fair taxes on corporations and the wealthiest among us. California is paying a heavy price.
Certainly, our walk has allowed us to see ample evidence of the crisis: crumbling road and irrigation systems, high unemployment, foreclosed houses everywhere, overcrowded classrooms courtesy of teacher layoffs, people living under highway overpasses with few social services available, fallow farm fields and closed processing plants, to name just a few. About the only thing growing seems to be the number of new prisons in the Valley, an ironic epitome of the problem.
Our hope is that this march, which actually covers more ground than the original UFW march, and the final climatic rally on the steps of the capitol will have a similar long-term impact. We hope that the elements of the crisis in public education, public health, and public safety that we are talking about at every stop will become visible to the voters of California, in much the same way the farmworkers' march helped the people of California and nation awaken to their plight.
We are marching instead of just writing letters or lobbying or picketing because the traditional protest methods have not worked. The march, with its longer shelf life and the physical commitment and personal sacrifice involved, sends a powerful message of urgency.
I view myself as a legacy of the California system when it worked. I went to school in the 1950s when our school system was ranked as one of the best in the nation. When it was my time to go to college, it was free at the state university system. The theory back then was that if we had an educated electorate, they'd be more productive, more supportive of the state, not in trouble. I think that worked. They gave me a free education, and I came back and worked my entire life in the state. I've owned businesses here. I've taught in our schools.
I think I've more than returned the investment. But we've kind of lost track of that. At one time we were a selfless society in California. We seem to have become more selfish. That's unfortunate, because we're losing track of the dream.
If the March changes California's future, my 48 days away from home will be a cheap sacrifice.
Gavin Riley is a retired teacher of 37 years. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Barbra.