What's at Stake in the O'odham Trial
The prosecution of indigenous peoples' activists over protests last year bring into sharp relief what kind of Arizona we want
Arizona is definitely not Egypt, where the UN has estimated that some 300 pro-democracy activists were killed … neither can Arizona be compared to Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, or especially Libya, where hundreds more have been killed in ongoing protests.
And yet, Arizona has been haemorrhaging the past two decades during which the harsh Sonoran desert has claimed several thousand lives. This has occurred as a direct result of official US policies, namely the continued militarisation of the border that results in a deathly "funnel effect". This is precisely what undergirds Arizona's cultural or civilisational conflict; it isn't simply about fear and hate, but of forced migrations and the borderlands as a vast desert cemetery for those whose footprints did not quite take them to the promise land.
All these deaths are predictable, with mathematical precision: export genetically modified corn to the south and, in short order, millions of people, unable to compete with the cheap US-subsidised corn, will eventually migrate north. Militarily close off crossing paths to the east and the west and the only place left for crossing is this godforsaken desert. Just since 2000, in Arizona alone, more than 2,100 human remains have been recovered. Not to be forgotten is that many of those bodies recovered show evidence of violence (can we overlook the killings of Raul and 9-year-old Briseña Flores by white supremacists on the border?).
The deaths of thousands is tolerated precisely because human beings – as part of free trade agreements (Nafta) – are treated as less than human, never factored into the equation. Couple this with an extreme rightwing state legislature and we have a perfect storm.
This nation's, and this state's, solution, to this crisis is to further militarise the border and to criminalise and imprison, via kangaroo courts (Operation Streamline), the migrants, particularly in private prisons. The flurry of anti-Mexican, anti-indigenous and anti-migrant bills has indeed created a response in Arizona. From May to July, weekly protests erupted throughout the state, including one with close to 200,000 protesters in Phoenix. These resulted in mass arrests, from students chaining themselves to the state capitol, taking over streets or state buildings, to indigenous activists occupying the Tucson Border Patrol headquarters.
This week, the indigenous activists find themselves on trial, facing the charges of criminal trespass. The defendants, part of the O'odham Solidarity Across Borders Collective, did so to protest the militarisation of the border; this includes the sending of yet more national guard troops; the efforts to wall the 2,000-mile border and the use of military drone technology.
This radical protest took the nation by surprise because of the narrative that has been fashioned by far right forces of aliens, brown hordes and silent invasions. The occupation is deep with symbolism. Who is invading whom? For indigenous peoples, the militarisation of the border has, indeed, meant invasion and criminal trespass. And in the case of various indigenous nations, particularly the O'odham, it has come at a steep price: the division of their nation; the desecration of sacred lands; the depopulation of their villages; and their inability to move freely across their own lands. Their action was taken not in isolation, but in solidarity with those opposed to the state's repressive legislation.
On 23 February, the trial of five members of the O'odham collective will begin. This will come at a time when the state legislature continues its path of virtually seceding from the United States (SB 1443) – a bill that purportedly exempts Arizona from federal laws and another proposal that would exempt Arizona from international law (SCR 1010). With the ethnic studies ban coming to a head – Tucson's school district was given until 18 April to eliminate their Mexican American studies programme – Arizona is seemingly set for a state-wide showdown between those who desire to live in the 21st century and those who would prefer to return to the 19th. This is a reminder that the Arizona conflict is also about would-be inquisitions and forced impositions of culture.
Unfortunately, the budget situation in Arizona is not dissimilar to Wisconsin's, where union workers and their supporters have finally had enough. Conservatives nationwide, and state by state, are prepared to please corporations and the super-rich by giving them unneeded tax breaks while continuing to stick it to the poor and middle classes, under the tragicomic guise of fiscal conservatism. The amazing protest in Wisconsin continues; it may presage the future of state battles nationwide.
In Phoenix, Arizona, we know only too well what conservative legislators are capable of. The question is whether the prospect of mass protests at state capitols can exercise restraint on them. We watch Wisconsin and wait.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2011