As a group of about 40 of us gathered in Tucson’s state building preparing to be arrested as a result of the passage of a new anti-ethnic-studies law in Arizona, several attorneys explain to us the consequences of our impending arrest. The talk winnows our numbers down to 15, in part because many of those assembled are middle school, high school and college students, and there are issues of parental authority and other legalities to consider.
Those of us who remain on the second floor have thoughts racing through our minds. As I think about why I will get arrested, all I can think of is the Nahuatl concept of Ipalnemoani: “That for what we live for” – or the Maya concept of Hunab Ku.
We can summons all the world’s linguists and great philosophers, but, in the end, their translations will not suffice. It is meaning that I am looking for, not words. Hunab Ku is about who we are and what makes us human. Right now, it boils down to one question: For what in life is it worth getting arrested?
For those of us here at the state building, the right to our own narrative – the right to memory – is worth it.
The decision to get arrested is a collective one. These youngsters are courageous and determined to defend what is theirs: an ethnic/Mexican-American studies department that affirms who they are as full human beings – as people with a thousands-of-years-old culture, history and philosophy that come from this very continent.
Another roughly 200 protesters on the first floor are also subject to arrest because they are participating in a boisterous demonstration inside the state building. Arizona’s state superintendent, Tom Horne – who spearheaded the anti-ethnic studies law, HB 2281 – has taken refuge here after failing to show up at Tucson Unified School District headquarters, where perhaps 1,000 students surrounded that building.
It has come to this. Now, in the heat of summer, one question is foremost on people’s minds, especially here in Arizona: what does it take to face arrest for your beliefs, your history, your identity?
Several weeks before the racial profiling law (SB 1070) was signed, nine students and community members were arrested after chaining themselves to the state capitol. (The charges have since been dropped.) The week after, 15 of us were arrested for criminal trespass in Tucson, five students and community organizers pushing for adoption of the Dream Act staged a sit-in at Sen. John McCain’s office in Tucson; all subjected themselves to historic arrests – exposing themselves to deportation. Then, a week later, a dozen members of the statewide O’odham Solidarity Across Borders Collective took over and occupied the Border Patrol Headquarters in Tucson. Six were arrested for disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.
This flurry of arrests brings to the fore what is happening in this insane asylum called Arizona, including the forthcoming attempt to void the 14th Amendment, which guarantees birthright citizenship to anyone born in this country. This reactionary revisionism is unfolding amid the constant arrival of racial and political extremists to this state.
As Arizona gets more insane, we have arrived at a moral precipice. Soon, others will face the same question: Beyond protesting, people will ask, for what am I willing to get arrested?
In other countries and at other points in history, the most pressing question has been, for what am I willing to fight and die? Here and now, that question has been inverted: For what am I willing to live? The nature of this question and the seriousness with which it’s being contemplated, signals that many people here are not content with simply sending emails or blasting text messages to senators.
As the anti-Mexican/anti-Indigenous and anti-immigrant hate-and-fear drums continue to increase in volume, the Obama administration capitulates by continuing to further militarize the border. This Arpaio-ization of not simply the border, but the nation, continues to elicit an unprecedented response.
Human rights activists nationwide have united to boycott the state, while more than 100,000 people recently protested in Phoenix.
As July 29 – the date when the racial profiling law will take effect – fast approaches, people in Arizona and across the country will face a life-changing decision. (We will face a decision of the same magnitude on January 1, 2011, the date when the anti-ethnic-studies law goes into effect.) Will we commit to mass civil disobedience, or will we lack the courage to come forward, just like when Americans sat idly by as their fellow Japanese-American citizens were marched off to camps during World War II?
This is when history calls upon all of us to make that momentous decision. This time around, hopefully, the right decision will be made.