on the ground in Arizona

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*** written with Will

SB 1070, and the white supremacist attacks on ethnic studies and “teachers with accents” is potentially sparking a new round of mass struggle for immigrant rights.

In Arizona, the fight for immigrant rights has been going on for some time.  The Right has been mobilizing to capture state power in Arizona through the Tea Party mobilizations in the state legislature along with attacks against brown and undocumented peoples by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In response, organizers across the country – some new and some veterans of the movement – are contending with questions that were left unanswered after the spike in mass activity around the immigrant rights movement in 2006

The right wing of the movement is using the same tactics to demobilize protesters and organizers, and instead supporting bracero-styled legislation, and appealing to the nativist perception of the ‘brown hordes invading America.’

The challenge facing the rest of the movement will be whether we can build our own autonomous institutions that doesn’t compromise with the right, doesn’t sacrifice some undocumented peoples for a ‘well-behaved’ few, and build united working class power among the different sectors of the struggle.

Below are two articles by Joel Olson, an organizer with the Repeal Coalition, which is calling organizers to Arizona for a Freedom Summer in order to fight against this new round of attacks on immigrants and undocumented peoples.

Major questions still face the movement in terms of what next and how to do it:

  • What relationship should organizers and the movement have to institutions like the City Council of Flagstaff?
  • Can undocumented immigrants be organized at the workplace to fight SB 1070?
  • How do workers stop ICE raids?  Do Cop Watch style groups need to be built in light of what Sheriff Joe Arpaio has done in AZ?
  • What support can be given to the folks on the ground in AZ from other parts of the country?
  • How will undocumented immigrants be won over to revolutionary politics in the course of this fight?
  • Is Sheriff Joe Arpaio representative of proto-fascism, fascism itself, or white populism?  How do we look at the Minute Men and the Tea Party Movement under these ideological rubrics?
  • We should also ask what is the relationship of the economic crisis and the attacks on immigrants.

———————–

New Arizona
by Joel Olson

In the midst of the Arizona state government passing the most outrageous anti-immigrant law since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, several happenings pass unnoticed by the national media. At a packed Flagstaff City Council meeting discussing the law, waves of people declare publicly that they are undocumented, practically daring law enforcement officers to arrest them. At the same meeting, a member of a radical immigrant rights group receives thunderous applause for demanding the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws and declaring the right of all people to “live, love, and work wherever they please.” Even the most conservative city councilman admits he liked the notion. Down in Phoenix, high school students spontaneously organize a school walkout through mass texting, without direction from the established immigration reform organizations. This infuriates the organizations because it pre-empts “their” planned protests. And then these same students chuck water bottles at cops when they arrest one of their own.

Welcome to the new Arizona.

Arizona has been dragged through the mud by the media and national opinion over the passage of SB 1070, a heinous anti-immigration law that massively expands police power in the state, basically mandating racial profiling and making it a crime to associate with undocumented people. Much of this derision is deserved. The law was crafted by one of the most nativist politicians in the country, State Senator Russell Pearce of Mesa, and signed by Governor Jan Brewer, who is running as far to the right as she can in order to win the coming Republican primary. The anti-immigrant sentiment is so strong in this state that even our “maverick” U.S. Senator, John McCain, endorsed the bill. McCain, who supported immigration reform when he ran for president in 2008, is also up for reelection this November.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is so widespread it could change the political landscape here—for the worse. The rumor is that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who began the nativist sensation in Arizona in 2006 with his roadblocks and sweeps for “illegals”—is going to run for governor against Brewer. Andrew Thomas, the Maricopa County Attorney who is otherwise known as Arpaio’s mini-me, recently quit his job in order to run for state attorney general. Pearce salivates at the thought of replacing Arpaio as County Sheriff. So if you think things are bad now, wait until November, when we could have Arpaio, Thomas, Hayworth, and Pearce running the state. It’s enough to make David Duke exhale a low whistle.
But the courageous actions of undocumented workers and high school students suggest that nativism will not rule the Grand Canyon State without a fight. And those from below just might win.

You can see the kernel of the new Arizona in the shell of the old in the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots, all-volunteer organization with chapters in Flagstaff and Phoenix. As one of its main organizers, Taryn Jordan, explains, the group was formed in 2008 to fight anti-immigrant legislation. “We knew something like this [SB 1070] was coming, and we’ve known it for a long time,” says Jordan. “Our goal in Repeal was to provide a new face of resistance to it.”

And it is new. Most immigrant rights groups here call for “comprehensive immigration reform,” a law that would create a long, arduous path to citizenship for only some undocumented people, while leaving many in legal limbo. The Repeal Coalition, however, argues for the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws. “We demand the repeal of all laws—federal, state, and local—that degrade and discriminate against undocumented individuals and that deny U.S. citizens their lawful rights,” their literature states. “We demand that all human beings—with papers or without—be guaranteed access to work, housing, health care, education, legal protection, and other public benefits, as well as the right to organize.”

Flagstaff Repeal Coalition organizer Ashley Cooper says that in the current anti-immigrant climate, repeal is the only relevant demand. “You can’t reform these laws; you can only repeal them,” she says. “And this gets to the heart of the issue. In a global economy, where goods and services move effortlessly across borders, humans deserve the same freedom. The only way to achieve that is to repeal existing laws, not create complicated and difficult paths to citizenship that only some people will be able to access.”

The group is finding an increasingly receptive audience for its message, especially among undocumented people and college and high school students.

Repeal’s approach to political organizing is also different from most immigration reform organizations. “Our goal is not to work for the people but to work with them,” explains Phoenix organizer Ceci Saenz. “We believe that the people should be leading this struggle—and that they already are leading it.” Repeal’s task, she explains, is to facilitate this leadership by bringing people together, encouraging them to “develop their militancy,” and to provide a political framework for their struggle, which is expressed by their slogan, “No more hate, harass, and blame: Freedom for all people to live, love, and work where you please!”

Flagstaff Repeal helped mobilize the undocumented workers who courageously spoke out at the City Council meeting, for example, and they are currently organizing pickets at a local hotel that has harassed and abused (and now fired) undocumented workers there. The weekend before, they organized three protests in a row, which drew 500 people in a town of 60,000. “It wasn’t even our idea,” explains Flagstaff Repeal Coalition organizer Katie Fahrenbruch. “We held a meeting just before 1070 was passed. When one of our volunteers asked folks what they wanted to do about [the law], the entire audience said ‘Protest!’” (In Spanish, of course.) “They couldn’t collectively agree on a day, so they said let’s do it for three days. So, we helped organize it in less than twenty-four hours’ notice.”

In Phoenix, the Coalition is organizing undocumented people, trailer park by trailer park, apartment complex by apartment complex. While thousands massed at the state Capitol the day after Governor Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, the Repeal Coalition was with a group of several hundred, led by undocumented women, who led a protest through the Latino neighborhoods they are organizing. Later that evening they called an emergency meeting, and within thirty minutes there were forty undocumented people meeting inside a garage in a trailer park, discussing strategy.

Many people have been talking about leaving the state since 1070 was passed, but this group did not. They talked about fighting. Something is new here.

All of this is being done by a group of just a handful of volunteers without non-profit status and with virtually no budget. Three Phoenix organizers live in a “Repeal” house, paid for by a small grant they obtained. They agree to work at least thirty hours a week for Repeal in exchange for free rent and utilities. “We don’t live large and it’s been stressful since 1070 was passed, but it’s worth it,” says Chris Griffin. He lives in the house and spends his days visiting jails, courthouses, and the homes of undocumented workers struggling against these laws.

This is the new Arizona. As conservative whites try to drive every “illegal” out of the state, and as immigration reform groups wait for Obama and Pelosi and Reid to put immigration reform on the agenda, folks in the Repeal Coalition are holding mass meetings of undocumented workers and are going to the hangouts of high school students, encouraging them to take their struggle to the next level. And as snipers line the roof of the State Capitol, they are smiling every time a water bottle whizzes past a cop who is now empowered to check their papers.

Welcome to the new Arizona.

—————————

SB 1070: Battle at the Grassroots
by Joel Olson

In the struggle over the notorious anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-working class law SB 1070, a person might be tempted to see this as a conflict that plays out among the elites of Arizona politics: legislators, governors, sheriffs, newspaper editors, judges, lawyers, and nonprofits. This view would be understandable, but wrong. The real battle is at the grassroots.

On the one hand, there is a strong nativist movement afoot in Arizona that is overwhelmingly white, mostly over the age of fifty, and largely male. They fear that “illegals are invading” and causing all manner of mayhem, from home invasions to overcrowded emergency rooms to automated voices forcing them to “press 1 for English.” They are represented by the Tea Party and local politicians such as State Senator Russell Pearce. Their goal is to hound and harass all “illegal aliens” out of Arizona—and if they have to check the papers of every brown-skinned person in the state to do it, fine. “Attrition through enforcement,” Pearce calls it. That phrase is now written into Arizona law. At their demand, SB 1070 turns every cop in the state into an immigration officer, practically requires racial profiling, and denies the freedom of Arizonans to associate with whoever they please, documented or not. With the passage of 1070, nativists are confident that they control the territory.

But what happens when you hold a Tea Party and a bunch of “illegals” show up?

Facing down the nativist faction is a ragtag, underfinanced, increasingly fearless, and thoroughly working class movement that seeks to destroy SB 1070 and replace the Tea Party’s bogus call for “small government”—by the way, how is a government where every cop is empowered to check your papers “small”?—with a real call for freedom of movement and association. The hope for Arizona rests with this group that is fighting at the grassroots for the freedom to live, love, and work wherever you please.

One of the first battles between these two forces took place last Tuesday in the small mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona (population 60,000). The Flagstaff City Council voted 7-0 to sue the state government to prevent SB 1070 from going into effect. (Earlier that day, Tucson’s city council voted 5-1 to do the same thing. Now other towns, such as Yuma and Naco, are also threatening to file an injunction.)

This decision from within the most nativist state in the nation came as a shock to many. True, Flagstaff has a reputation for being a liberal bubble, but the city council hardly has a stellar record of standing with people of color, as anyone from the Save the Peaks Coalition could tell you. The city council has been hostile to this indigenous-led effort to prevent the local ski resort from using Flagstaff sewage water to make artificial snow on a mountain that is sacred to thirteen tribes. (That’s right, they want you to ski on pee.)

Further, a poll taken just after SB 1070’s passage showed that seventy percent of Arizonans supported it. And when Rush Limbaugh heard that over 150 people came to the previous Flagstaff City Council meeting urging them to file an injunction, he told his listeners to besiege the Council with calls in support of 1070. Over the next few days, Flagstaff’s little city hall received a slew of racist voice mails and several death threats. Then the local Tea Party put out a call to pack the next meeting.

But they didn’t count on getting beat at their own game.
The Tea Party nationwide prides itself on being a grassroots organization feared by politicians. They probably thought that a good word from Limbaugh would help them bumrush city hall and put this whole injunction business to rest. But that was before they met the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots organization that seeks the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in the state of Arizona and believes in the freedom of all people to live, love, and work wherever they please. (For more on the work of the Repeal Coalition, see my previous article, “New Arizona.”)

While Limbaugh blathered on, the Repeal Coalition held a mass meeting in the local Catholic church to put pressure on city hall. Sixty adults and twenty kids, most of them Latino, most of them undocumented or related to someone who is, came after work in their McCafe uniforms, bounced babies on their laps, and in a sweltering room for two and half hours, patiently developed a strategy—hashed out in Spanish and English—to keep the pressure on the city council. They planned a protest before the council meeting, and then to pack the meeting chamber itself. The Tea Party boasted it would do the same.

At 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday, people began trickling in to the chambers, while a crowd opposed to SB 1070 gathered on the street in front of city hall. Repeal members handed out scraps of paper to people as they filed in, suggesting that if they spoke before the council during the meeting they should demand that the council condemn SB 1070 and vote to file an injunction against it. By 5:30, over two hundred people were jammed into the council chambers. The room was stuffed so full the fire marshal had to shut the doors.

But only about thirty people were from the Tea Party. Opponents of 1070 had them outnumbered six to one. Plus there were a hundred people watching a live feed of the event in the lobby. Plus there were dozens of people who would not go into city hall because they were undocumented and feared police harassment, but fed messages to Repeal Coalition members, who conveyed them to the city council. Plus there were two hundred people outside still protesting—oh, and a lone Tea Partier holding a sign. (Yes, one person. Remind me, why are liberals so afraid of this group?)

With drums from the protest audible in the chamber, waves of people spoke out against 1070 and in favor of filing an injunction against it, while just five Tea Partiers spoke against the injunction. Each of the five went to great lengths to emphasize that they only opposed illegal immigration—but in the next breath they warned of “invasions” and a “virtual border that’s moving northward.” They weren’t racist for supporting SB 1070, they insisted—but then they talked about how “these people” commit crimes. Their logic was simple and crude: Undocumented = criminal = Mexican = all Latinos.

They knew they were out-organized, and they were furious. One elderly gentleman, who earlier had tried to get me kicked out of the council chamber for handing out our speaking suggestions, waved the scrap of paper in front of the council and accused the Repeal Coalition of telling people what to say. “Am I right about this?” he turned and asked the crowd. “No!” it roared back. He sat down and left the meeting shortly.

Many of those who spoke against 1070 deeply impressed the council and the crowd. One man openly admitted he was undocumented. A Latina whose family has lived in Flagstaff since the 1890s told the Tea Partiers, “You think this law won’t affect you? You’re right; it won’t—because you’re white. You bet it’s going to affect me and my family, and we’ve lived here for four generations!” A white guy in a tie mocked the racial profiling within the law by saying “I’m not a bigot, but I look like one, don’t I?” Roars of laughter.

In the most powerful testimony of the night, a woman from the Navajo Nation told the council how this law would inevitably harass and profile indigenous people. Angrily she said, “I never had to carry my C.D.I.B. [Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood] and now I do. You all [white people] are our guests in this land. And this is how we are repaid. I’m going to be stopped because of this law, and I’m from a First Nation.” She left the podium in tears, and to thunderous applause.

The Tea Partiers began filing out in defeat midway through the meeting. As they did, Latinos who were waiting outside filled their seats. By the time the council actually voted on the injunction, there wasn’t a tea bag in sight. The symbolism of a grassroots movement devoted to oppression being replaced, one by one, by another grassroots movement devoted to freedom, smelled as sweet as creosote after a desert rain.

Four and a half hours into the meeting, three things struck me. First, the legal struggle against 1070 is driven by the grassroots struggle. I realized this as one councilperson, Scott Overton, admitted that he wanted to wait to see what other cities were going to do first before approving an injunction, but “the community pushed hard.” He then proceeded to vote for it. Then, the most conservative member of the council (and a candidate for mayor in an election that’s just three weeks away) voted for the injunction, too—even though minutes earlier he had said he would abstain! From his rambling comments it was clear that he did not like the injunction and probably liked the spirit of SB 1070, but he didn’t have the guts to go against 200 people pressuring him to do the right thing.

Politicians and lawyers may be in front of the television cameras, but they are not in the lead in the battle against SB 1070. Rather, they are being pushed into action by a teeming movement of undocumented people, their loved ones, and their allies. To be sure, the city council’s decision required some courageous initiative by Councilwoman Coral Evans. But this issue is hot because people at the grassroots are hot, and politicians feel they have to do something. In figuring out what happens next in the struggle, then, the question is not, “Will the legal battle win?” but “Will the grassroots be able to push the legal struggle even further?”

Second, the Tea Party and their ilk can only be defeated by out-organizing them. Tea Partiers are wrong, but they’re not stupid. Their minds won’t be changed by showing them “the facts” about immigration, for ideology always trumps truth. Rather than dismissing them as ignorant, you have to beat them at the grassroots. In Flagstaff, a grassroots group led by working-class Latinos out-organized the mighty Tea Party. They left early, and at 10:00 p.m. we celebrated a unanimous decision. Even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t save them.

Third, this evil law can be defeated. Flagstaff is a sign. New polls show that support among Arizonans for the law has declined to just over fifty percent, with those numbers going down to forty-five percent of those under thirty-five. Enthusiasm for 1070 is dampening because the grassroots is firing up.

We can win this.

In 1963, Malcolm X wrote about a Black revolution coming from the grassroots, one in which Black people were determined to control their destiny rather than be controlled by whites. Similarly, a new movement is emerging from the grassroots in Arizona, one that rejects the weak tea of “liberty” proposed by nativist Tea Parties. This new Arizona demands a new kind of liberty called for by a global economy: the freedom to live, love, and work wherever one pleases, and the freedom of ordinary people to have a say in those affairs that affect their daily lives.

The day after our victory, a hundred high school and middle school (!) students walked out of school in protest against 1070 and marched to city hall. Repeal Coalition members met them there and exchanged phone numbers. That evening, another mass meeting organized by the Repeal Coalition voted to keep the pressure on with more protests and more resolutions for city hall to pass.

So what happens when you hold a tea party and a bunch of “illegals” show up? You can see the new Arizona in sight, and it’s as beautiful as a Sonoran sunset.

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3 thoughts on “on the ground in Arizona”

  1. These are good questions; thanks for raising them. These are my personal answers, not answers that represent the Repeal Coalition or Bring the Ruckus. –Joel

    * What relationship should organizers and the movement have to institutions like the City Council of Flagstaff?

    I think it depends on the attitude the institution takes toward the movement’s demands. I don’t believe that radical change comes from existing institutions, but I recognize that sometimes the historical moment (or effective organizing) can put pressure on institutions that incline them to do the right thing. That’s what happened with the Flagstaff City Council. Repeal’s approach was to pressure those councilpersons who were standing on the fence regarding whether to file an injunction to get off it and do the right thing. To do this, we did not treat the Council as a whole as the enemy. As long as their actions were consistent with our goals, we could work together. But if the council as a whole is hostile to our next goal–declaring Flagstaff a sanctuary city that will not enforce SB 1070–then we’ll need to alter that relationship.

    * Can undocumented immigrants be organized at the workplace to fight SB 1070?

    The terrible pay and working conditions that undocumented workers endure at the job site are directly related to laws like SB 1070 that harass them and prevent them from organizing. The Coalition includes workers from Hampton Inn in Flagstaff who were repeatedly harassed, abused, mistreated, and ultimately fired. They came to the Coalition initially to see if we could help them with this. Every single undocumented person at our meeting has had a similar experience, or knows someone who has. We are currently engaging with Hampton Inn management behind the scenes right now, with plans to take the struggle public, if that’s what the workers want.

    But does this question imply that the workplace is the privileged site of struggle for undocumented people? If so, I would disagree with that. Repeal meetings are workers’ meetings, so they are objectively a site of workers’ organizing. And in fact, there is much more space for workers to organize themselves in a community organization such as Repeal than as undocumented (or even documented) workers in an Arizona workplace.

    * How do workers stop ICE raids? Do Cop Watch style groups need to be built in light of what Sheriff Joe Arpaio has done in AZ?

    Ultimately, by abolishing the laws that ICE enforces. Flag Copwatch has done some very good ICEwatching during ICE raids, and I think we should do it whenever we know of a raid. But that kind of work is intermittent.

    * What support can be given to the folks on the ground in AZ from other parts of the country?

    Money and organizers. Especially organizers. If folks are self-motivated and don’t need a lot of caretaking but don’t have much organizing experience, we can help train you.

    * How will undocumented immigrants be won over to revolutionary politics in the course of this fight?

    If Marx and C.L.R. James are right, then these folks are already revolutionary. The task of the conscious revolutionary is to bring that revolutionary consciousness out in to the open by showing the workers the radical nature of what they are doing, putting it in a national and international context, and participating in their organizations and struggles, such as Repeal.

    The task here, it seems to me, is to figure out how to develop leadership among undocumented folks. That’s part of what we are trying to do now.

    * Is Sheriff Joe Arpaio representative of proto-fascism, fascism itself, or white populism? How do we look at the Minute Men and the Tea Party Movement under these ideological rubrics?

    I do not believe that nativism in Arizona or anywhere in the U.S. is really fascist. It’s more of a byproduct of white supremacy, and in the U.S., white supremacy is tied to democracy, not fascism or corporatism. (Some scholars call it herrenvolk democracy, democracy for the master race.) White tyranny under the cloak of majority rule is our problem, not national socialism.

    * We should also ask what is the relationship of the economic crisis and the attacks on immigrants.

    I think it’s pretty clear that nativism and the rise of the Tea Party are directly related to the recession. The challenge is to explain why movements on the right emerged quickly, but not on the left. As in the above question, I think it has to do with the power of the white democracy in the U.S. and its tendency to side with capital over labor. Changing that dynamic is the key challenge for every incipient radical mobilization in the U.S., from immigration rights to defending public education to fighting police brutality and racial profiling to defending women’s access to reproductive health.

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