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Arizona's Moment of Truth

As we rush headlong toward the July 29th implementation date for Arizona's immigration law, SB 1070, all signs are pointing toward a truly epic clash in the offing. Positions have been staked out, legal challenges have been joined, legislative claims have been debunked, and activists are massing in the wings. This is a moment of historical import -- our generation's Selma and Montgomery -- and what transpires in the desert over the coming weeks will add a crucial chapter to the story of who we are as a people. This is, in all likelihood, the sort of socio-political turning point that will spawn myriad future conversations devolving upon "where were you when it happened?" and "which side were you on?"

I am unequivocally, and unsurprisingly, on the side that says "Ya Basta!" to anti-immigrant policies and practices in Arizona and elsewhere. SB 1070 (which really should have been named "BS 1070" if they cared about truth in advertising) is thinly-veiled legislated racism and cynically misguided politics at its worst. Every justification given for why we need this law -- from alleged border violence and drug-related beheadings to upholding federal law and cleaning up social service programs -- has proven to be patently false and empirically unsupportable. The bill's crafters, sponsors, and some of its supporters have open connections to hate-based supremacist groups. A number of law enforcement officials, including the Phoenix police chief, have spoken out against the law and a few are even part of the lawsuits challenging it. One officer bluntly said that enforcing it would make him "like a Nazi," calling the law "racist" and observing that under its provisions he could basically stop anyone he wanted to at any time with or without a concocted "reasonable suspicion" that is part and parcel of this "horrifying" law.

As has been pointed out by myself and many other commentators, SB 1070 focuses on effects rather than root causes, and punishes the victims rather than the perpetrators. Forced migration due to NAFTA, corporate malfeasance, governmental corruption, and simple human desperation cannot be eliminated or even mitigated by a legislative fiat that turns marginalized people into criminals based merely on their status. People fleeing toxification of their communities and immiseration in their jobs will still seek to cross the nation's most lethal border regardless of what legal chicanery awaits them on the other side. One cannot deter the desire for a better life for oneself and one's children that drives so much of the immigration we see here in the southwest. All that laws like SB 1070 and its ilk accomplish is to render these people even more vulnerable to exploitation, fragmented families, and a host of other outcomes that are violative of the basic human rights guarantees enshrined in numerous treaties and agreements that are supposed to be "the law of the land" under our republican political framework.

Legally, economically, and morally, SB 1070 is inherently bankrupt. Arizona is teetering on the edge of becoming a "failed state" due to its race-to-the-bottom educational system, lack of public infrastructure, corporate giveaways, and de facto rightwing coup d'etat in the halls of legislative power. Immigrants actually return more to the state's economy than they draw out, crime rates are equivalent or lower among migrants than other sectors, and the ethnic diversity they bring here is part and parcel of the cultural underpinnings that reflect the rich history of the region. By dehumanizing immigrants and creating an entire category of instantly-arrestable "illegals," Arizona is seeking to undo the modest gains achieved by generations of civil rights struggle, and in the process could spark a racialized pogrom that portends even greater levels of conflict and crisis in the days ahead. And indeed, in a nod to the "ethnic cleansing" implications of the impending law, "thousands of families are already leaving Arizona."

It is this recognition that SB 1070 is simply the opening salvo in a wider "race war" in America that has served to motivate a new generation of civil rights advocates and activists. In one of the most poignant and powerful signs, marginalized people themselves have been on the front lines of social protest under the mantra of "undocumented and unafraid," in some cases openly courting arrest and even deportation in the process. Numerous ally organizations and individuals are ramping up their calls for open defiance of the law in an expression of solidarity and defiance.  "We are urging all Arizonans of conscience not to comply with SB 1070 because it is an immoral law that will practically mandate racial profiling," said Joel Olson of the Repeal Coalition, which advocates the rescission of all anti-immigrant laws. "We believe that public and willful disobedience of this law is going to make it unenforceable, and that's our goal," Olson told the Arizona Daily Sun. Alfredo Gutierrez, an organizer with Somos America, further observed that the coming protests will be "nonviolent and symbolic," and that they will serve as acts of "defiance and hope" for the state's growing Hispanic community.

Across the state, people are planning an overt "campaign of noncompliance" should the law survive pending legal challenges and take effect. As recently noted in an article in Waging Nonviolence, SB 1070 provides a "rare opportunity" for direct civil disobedience in the sense that people will be willfully violating the very law in question in itself, rather than the typical scenario where an ancillary law (e.g., trespassing, blocking traffic) is violated in protest of some larger policy. This has legal significance, and more importantly harks back to the Jim Crow era in which segregationist laws were openly violated through lunch counter sit-ins and the like. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, borrowing from St. Augustine before him, "an unjust law is no law at all," and furthermore "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." The fact that we are back again to invidious legislated bigotry is disconcerting to say the least, yet it also has served to mobilize a resurgence of critical engagement with issues that for too long have been swept under the rug of our archaic and draconian immigration policies.

As the implementation date for SB 1070 is now mere days away, here we arrive at the crossroads that is Arizona's, and the nation's, moment of truth. To the right is the ethical and spiritual dead end of racism and the historical baggage of slavery; to the left is the promise of an engaged populace imbued with a sense of social justice and steadfast solidarity. My lot is cast with emancipation, and I hope yours is too.

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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

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