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PORTSIDE  August 2010, Week 1

PORTSIDE August 2010, Week 1

Subject:

Phoenix Rising ... and the Struggle Continues

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Phoenix Rising ... and the Struggle Continues

By: Randall Amster J.D., Ph.D., 

August 03, 2010, t r u t h o u t 

http://www.truth-out.org/phoenix-rising-and-struggle-continues61976

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.

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updates.

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."

[Randall Amster J.D., Ph.D., teaches peace studies at Prescott
College and serves as the executive director of the Peace &
Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-
edited volume "Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary
Voices of Hope and Action" (Cambridge Scholars Publishing,
2009).]

_____________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

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