Phoenix Rising ... and the Struggle Continues

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. And 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

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-lampooning joke of a 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 accounts
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

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?
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."

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