I’ve written a lot about Arizona since the national controversy over SB 1070 took hold, and in particular during recent weeks as the struggle over the bill’s implications and ultimate fate began to reach a fever pitch. This focus is not accidental by any means; I’ve lived in Arizona for fifteen years, and I care deeply about the causes of social justice reflected in the debate over immigration. What I’ve seen here during this time, and especially over the past few days, indicates to me that we are on the cusp of something truly extraordinary. As the creeping fascism of immigrant-bashing becomes starkly evident, people are starting to move from protest to solidarity, and from fear to determination.
Obviously the immigration issue is one that arouses people’s passions, sometimes leading to intense vitriol being displayed on both sides, but in particular by those who recite paradoxical slogans like “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” Folks in this camp take great pains to assert that “it’s not about race,” and that people like myself are advocating an “open borders” philosophy that will lead the nation to ruin. Proponents of Arizona’s “attrition through enforcement” approach to the issue (as epitomized by SB 1070) often argue that illegal immigrants are taking American jobs, draining social services, and causing violent crime to rise. They assert, in short, that we need to build a wall and build it high, with “us” firmly on this side of it and all of “them” shipped back to the other side where they belong.
Lo siento, amigos. Your arguments are nonsensical, and are missing the larger point. People will come here no matter how high you build that wall, because we’ve dumped our toxic corporations and immiserating economic policies on the other side, from which most of us would flee as well. People will come here because they have family members here (legally) and want to be united with them. People will come because these are, in many cases, their ancestral homelands and part of their cultural heritage. People will come for the same reasons that our ancestors came, legally or otherwise.
And our lives will all be the richer for this. One need only spend a little time with Mexican immigrant communities to appreciate their inherent dignity, spirit of generosity, and emotional grace. These are decent, honest, kind, hardworking people who, ironically, possess many of the traditional skills being lost in our rampantly mechanizing culture: building things, growing food, and rearing children, for instance. Of course there are some bad apples in the bunch; this is no “noble savage” utopia. But there is a cultural ethos at work that is dynamic and passionate about many of the values we are losing.
Arizona’s nativist policies and legislative antipathies completely miss the mark. Laws like SB 1070 represent an attempt to pit white workers against nonwhite workers, while the bosses laugh all the way to the bank. They divide families and create an environment of fear that is intended to tamp down the potential political power of migrant communities. They create a category of second-class people made up equally of those who are documented or not. They pass the blame for economic woes and cultural disarray down the line instead of up the ladder, further away from the corrupt bankers and military industrialists who have actually fomented the crises in our midst. Anti-immigrant laws and sentiments express the worst aspects of our Americanism, and threaten to irreparably rend the fabric of society.
Against this, people have begun to lose their fear, and are rising up in their streets and neighborhoods. Mexican-American communities have been under siege for a long time here in Arizona, with the reign of terror led by (but not exclusive to) the self-parodying sheriff, Joe Arpaio. In an impromptu press conference held outside his grim jailhouse on July 29th (the day SB 1070, or what was left of it, took effect), the sheriff deflected questions from reporters and ordinary people alike, with smug retorts like, “Oh, we’re gonna pick up a lot of ’em today!” and “Excuse me, I’ve got raids to conduct now.” The highlight of his open mockery came when a young woman of color with an expensive camera asked him a pointed question. “Who are you with?” he asked, to which she replied, “The CBS Evening News.” Revealing his true colors, the sheriff snorted and dismissively opined, “Hmph. You don’t look like it.” This led another young woman to bluntly assert, “You’re an un-American racist!” Her eyes were filled with both pride and sadness when she said it.
A few blocks away, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets and sidewalks to register their opposition to anti-immigrant policies in general and the notion of SB 1070 in particular. Even though a judge had struck down many of the bill’s worst parts, people still understood that this was simply one small piece of a much larger struggle for human and civil rights. “The bottom line,” said one speaker to a small crowd, “is that even with the judge’s ruling, we’re worse off today than we were yesterday.” The fact that things got only incrementally worse rather than monumentally worse wasn’t lost on people, and the larger implications of the issue remained uppermost in their minds. “Our communities have a lot in common,” said a speaker from the NAACP, “and too many of our children are sharing the same prison cells.” A day earlier, daring activists unfurled a massive banner from a downtown crane that effectively encapsulated the dominant sentiment and the aim of the struggle: “STOP HATE.”
The demonstrations in Phoenix and across the state were supported by solidarity actions around the country, from Los Angeles to New York. The protest in Phoenix was the epicenter of engagement because of its obvious centrality to the core of the entire controversy. People, many of whom were undocumented, gathered en masse at the state capitol all day to picnic, dance, and listen to speakers. It was not a rancorous demonstration, but merely an announcement of their presence and diminished fear. Across town, a throng took to the streets adjacent to Cesar Chavez Park and in front of Sheriff Arpaio’s offices. Under the banner of “We Will Not Comply” and against a background of ringing chants like “No one is illegal; power to the people” and “Arrest Arpaio, not the people,” civil disobedients linked arms and sat-in in the tradition of “we will not be moved” political protest. More than 50 were arrested in total, including a few journalists and legal observers, a mother of six young children, community activists, a university professor, and many people of faith.
Despite the occasional caustic remark aimed at Arpaio and various state politicos, the protests in Phoenix were remarkably measured and principled. Some of the rhetoric and signage with Nazi-like imagery were intended to heighten the implicit racism lurking behind SB 1070, yet also made some in the crowd a bit uncomfortable. But are people supposed to be politically correct when calling out racist policies and the devastating pressures of living in a police state? Tensions began to boil over during demonstrations at the county jailhouse, where sheriff’s deputies pushed against the noisy crowd with shields up and batons in hand, only to be pushed back into the jail by the throng of peaceful protesters in a process that was repeated again later in a sort of synchronized protest choreography. And over the fracas, a woman silently raised a poignant sign: “Let your compassion be greater than your fear.”
And indeed, a great deal of compassion was on display in Phoenix on a sweltering day where the desert heat matched the heat of emotions in the streets. Protesters assisted each other with hydration, shared food, and took pains to be certain the park was completely cleaned up before vacating it. Some even asked the cops if they were okay, standing in the hundred-plus degree heat in full black riot gear like they were. On the other side, one police commander told his troops as they prepared to mass arrest civil disobedients: “One at a time guys, real slow, nice and easy….” A double column of cops with plastic handcuffs at the ready was approaching a wall of protesters blocking the street, and before engaging stopped to pass a bottle of water among themselves in what was a very basic, human moment. At the same time, activists in the crowd shared water among themselves in a parallel manner that suggested something about how we might go forward in the spirit of common humanity. As if to reinforce the point, as one officer was loading an elderly woman into a paddy wagon, she asked about the fate of her nice water bottle that had been removed from her person; the officer retrieved it, and handed it to one of her comrades on the sidewalk for safekeeping, before gently assisting her into the wagon.
None of these small moments account for the terrorization of communities and the damage done to families every day at the hands of the state. Protesters can at least take some measure of comfort in Arpaio’s admission that the resources being diverted to deal with the demonstrations had delayed his plans to conduct immigration raids that day, albeit temporarily. People reading this from afar might have a hard time fully appreciating the magnitude of these issues, and how much fear has been induced in migrant communities by these sorts of nascent pogroms. But when people begin to lose their fear, bolstered by allies and advocates in a shared struggle, we start to catch a glimpse of what a better world might look like in actual practice. One could see this in Guadalupe at the stroke of midnight on July 29th, when scores of residents of that small Mexican and Yacqui community (joined by activists) blocked the entrance to their town for over an hour, tying up traffic and, ultimately, peacefully dispersing when sheriff’s deputies indicated a reluctance to engage in mass arrests that night.
All of this is merely the beginning of an ongoing struggle, representing perhaps the overarching challenge of humankind. Can we live together, in complementary fashion among ourselves and with the earth that we all share, or will we squander our opportunity in ruthless competition and institutionalized exploitation? The showdown in Arizona suggests a path forward, and begins to articulate the goal in the very means being utilized: shared struggle, mutual interdependence, common humanity, principled resistance, solidarity, compassion, equity, and the inherent power of people to change the conditions of their lives. I’m proud to report that my fellow Arizonans have risen up, and will not give up, in this quest. Far from being some “pie in the sky” optimism or romantic longing, this is as tangible and effective as a sip of water in the desert.
As the blistering Arizona sun turned to blessed monsoon rain, the downtown Phoenix streets emptied with a lingering chant on the breeze: “Que queremos? Justicia! Cuando? Ahora!” People everywhere are thirsting for justice, and will continue working to make it available to everyone, equally and without reservation. As one small hand-held and rain-soaked sign said, “There’s no THEM, just US.”