The world was flat and dry with 100+ degree heat as we cruised US-10 past Joshua Tree National Park on the last leg of our 24 hour marathon drive from Olympia to Phoenix. Last Tuesday, Media Island, in partnership with Students for a Democratic Society, sent a diverse group of Olympia activists to travel to Phoenix for Arizona Freedom Summer. Five of us, Yonatan, Angel, Leah, Johnny and I piled into the Media Island Van and took off praying that the old V8 didn't kick the dust. It nearly did- on several occasions- but we made it back to share with you all our experiences.
The convergence of folks came on the date of the enactment of Arizona law SB 1070, otherwise known by the Orwellian name “The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.” The original language of the law gave state law enforcement agencies the ability to enforce tougher standards on immigrants than the federal government. It also opened the door for probable racial profiling, ordering all local law enforcement agencies to ask to see the papers of anyone they suspect is an undocumented immigrant.
The law soared to national prominence as social justice groups pointed to it as a main reason why we need comprehensive immigration reform. The Obama administration back tracked on it's earlier statements to make that the “next big change” after healthcare reform. Placed permanently on the federal legislative back burner, right wing legislators within state government in Arizona took action with an offensive law, shifting the frame of national debate farther to the right.
Fear mongering corporate media outlets after the initial success of their wholly owned and constructed “Tea Party” took matters further in bringing back to life and prominence the militia movement with the so called “Minute Men.” These elementary school references to the mainstream version of US history bring a false warm and fuzzy feeling to what is effectively a bunch of white guys, racially motivated by reinforced media stereotypes of Latinos, who patrol together along the border with big guns and trucks. These middle aged children of the first person shooter video game generation seem to think it's fun and patriotic rounding up poor men and women who have traveled for days or weeks trying to make it here just so they can make minimum wage at the crappiest of jobs.
This is the back drop of the protests. We were cruising for a bruising in Sheriff Joe Arpaio country, the infamous sheriff who makes his inmates wear pink underwear and who deputizes volunteer sheriffs so he can go after immigrants in big raids. His jail was known for it's brutality with some being beaten and killed and the regular use of embarrassment tactics like the pink underwear and long sentences for relatively minor crimes. Sheriff Joe brags about his raids on businesses employing undocumented immigrants and about doing the job of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. His raids of homes and border patrols have rounded up over 40,000 undocumented immigrants. These moves have made him a lot of enemies including, supposedly, the Mexican drug cartels who have offered a bounty for his head (or so the story goes).
From a distance Arizona can seem like a screwed up place, and the mostly white northern states are notorious for turning up their noses at white southerners who get labeled as bigots, racists and homophobes. As a southerner, I take deep offense of this perception which is generally untrue. Non Latino white people make up 58% of the population of Arizona while in Washington State it is 75%. Including the Native American populations and other ethnicities, Arizona is much more diverse, and as a border state the people are on the front-line bearing the burdens of federal policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the so called “Drug War.” This creates an unhealthy environment where Arizona is impotent at creating solutions which address the root causes, which is flawed federal policy, but must do something about it, which causes elected officials to act in ways that are repressive.
I'm not condoning this disgusting law in any way, but it makes sense that it would arise and it has little to do with the quality of their moral character. During the protests, the police showed well heeled restraint, partly because of the massive numbers of reporters present. Ultimately, no chemicals were used or rubber bullets fired. This was also to the credit of the organizers who peacefully mobilized, creating an environment where people could blockade the street and get arrested or cheer on the sidewalk with their kids securely. I got the feeling that in Arizona complicated politics exist which doesn't simply amount to blue and red folks toting their party platforms.
Politics are strange, and the politics of Arizona are totally bizarre. Jan Brewer is the current republican governor who signed the law into existence but Janet Napolitano was the democratic governor before her and is currently the Secretary of Homeland Security where she has lead the effort towards comprehensive immigration reform. The law SB1070 stinks of a political circus orchestrated by the right to frame immigration by gaining the offensive. Meanwhile the Obama administration has been totally mum on the issue after earlier promises to move forward on change.
The streets speak, and Latinos have been the overwhelming force to hit them in the past 5 years, blowing away Tea Party protesters, anti-war protesters, and anti-globalization activists combined. May Day's resurgence as a day of mass protest across the US has seen millions of mostly brown skinned folks waving American flags. It is a simple message: Latinos will not be ignored any longer and they want their human rights respected. Politicians, especially on the right, see Latinos as a threat to their mostly non-Latino white dominance over the government. By 2050 the US will be a plurality with non-Latino whites no longer being the majority. Democracy is a threat to the power elites, who are mostly white, male and wealthy. They will no longer be able to hide their differences from the majority.
As we were passing through LA, we heard the news that Federal Judge Susan Bolton had granted an injunction on the most controversial parts of the new law before it took effect. It took some of the wind out of the protests when we got there, you could tell the numbers were lower than what people had been hoping for. However, this was a well organized bunch. The hundreds who occupied the streets had plans for being arrested and support teams were set up to help. They had a banner drop off a crane that was a dramatic event, gaining a lot of press. People blockaded the front of the city jail and they had a concert in support next to the jail.
I got the response from one person that somehow you always hear at these sort of events. In the local CVS, the man behind the counter blamed the protestors who did the banner drop for the police diverting traffic in the area, making him late to work. I imagine a future where that man is complaining about the traffic caused when Latinos are fighting the National Guard from putting them on trains and shipping them to concentration camps. I don't blame the guy. It is a scary world if you actually try and understand it, white guys in corporate wage slave jobs could benefit from some empathy.
Sheriff Joe came out and gave interviews as folks chanted insults at him. The local media was surprisingly sympathetic towards the protestors in their coverage but they stripped the sound from that clip when they showed it. It was generally good press and Sheriff Joe had to divert deputies away from doing raids to engage protestors downtown. The gears in the machine were slowed for one day, showing some of what was possible when people engaged in direct action.
This is not over. Arizona has a bum deal with a bad sheriff providing a screwed up treatment of the symptoms rather than solutions. Traveling 3,000 miles in 6 days to protest every hair brained scheme of the right wing is not a solid way forward for progressives either. Somehow we must seize the offensive by supporting sanctuary cities and demanding equal job rights for all workers regardless of immigration status. We are a nation of immigrants, everyone is illegal, and we should remember that, as we strive for a just, equitable and sustainable world.