by George Shriver
TUCSON, Ariz. —This state has become a symbol of hatred, intolerance, bigotry, and violence—especially after the signing of the Arizona Senate Bill SB 1070 last April, which in effect authorized racial profiling. That law is now going through a lengthy process of court challenges and appeals. And harsh new laws are being prepared by the Arizona legislature—such as the denial of birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants
The immigrant rights movement continues to organize and build. But the fightback against SB 1070 (and against other anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican laws and initiatives in Arizona) has not become sufficiently powerful. It is not yet supported by a big enough mass base, nor by a mobilized union movement. Most unions declined to back the boycott against SB 1070. And after the midterm elections of November 2010 it seemed as though the racist forces had been strengthened.
With the shootings in Tucson in January 2011, one wonders: Has the government-promoted atmosphere of hatred, violence, and dehumanization—directed mainly against Mexicans and generally against people of color—now boomeranged?
On Jan. 8, Jared Lee Loughner, a mentally unbalanced white 22-year-old from a lower middle-class suburb of Tucson killed six people and wounded at least 13 in a deliberate assassination attempt aimed at a white politician, U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a pro-corporate “Blue Dog” Democrat recently reelected to the House of Representatives. Giffords was at a shopping mall to meet with constituents, and the assassin brazenly ran up and opened fire—with a Glock 9 mm semiautomatic pistol with a high-capacity magazine holding more than 30 bullets.
Reports have attributed to Loughner highly irrational reasons for his attack on Giffords. Allegedly he was dissatisfied with her answer to a vague question about language, which he had asked her at an earlier such event when she met with constituents. But surely he saw the many, inflammatory anti-Giffords signs that Tea Party types had posted by the roadsides in the Tucson metro area where he lived.
He could hardly have been unaware of the threatening tone of Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly, who ran against Giffords in last fall’s election campaign. Kelly, a former Marine who served in Iraq, promoted a campaign event on his web site this way: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”
Last summer Tea Party supporters demonstrated in large numbers at the office of Congressman Raúl Grijalva, who had called for a boycott of Arizona to protest SB 1070. Grijalva received death threats, and gunshots were fired at one of his offices. And the website of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin showed crosshairs targeting the Giffords electoral district. Palin also sent out an e-mail message: “Don’t Retreat—reload!”
Perhaps only on a subliminal level, Loughner must have known there was a widespread attitude of violent opposition to Giffords, a virulent atmosphere suggesting drastic measures against her. But in the background, without necessarily being aware of it, the assassin reflected in his actions the widespread messages of hatred and intolerance that have been encouraged by the U.S. federal and Arizona state governments for decades.
At the time that NAFTA was pushed through by the Clinton administration in 1993-94, backed fully by both Democrats and Republicans, the federal government began its deliberate policy of border militarization. That policy reinforced the general idea that the solution to problems is to take up the gun, use force and violence, i.e., bring in the military. One result, in the late 1990s, was the murder by U.S. Marines in Texas of a teenage Mexican American U.S. citizen, a totally innocent young man tending goats on his family’s land near the border.
The U.S. invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan carry the same message—if there’s a problem, shoot! Or send in 20,000 Marines, as was done in response to last year’s earthquake in Haiti. In April 2010 the top official of the U.S. government, Barack Obama, declared it was all right for the government to assassinate U.S. citizens. What Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1967, is truer than ever: the U.S. government is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Isabel Garcia, a leader of the immigrant rights movement in southern Arizona as co-chair of the Derechos Humanos Coalition, pointed out that the assassination attempt and the killing of six people were directly related to the policy of border militarization: “These senseless deaths are the result of a border policy that has been building since 1994. This policy has propelled the growth of fear, hate, and violence. Over 5000 migrant deaths, shootings, and continuing violence are a direct result of this policy.”
At a press conference on Jan. 10, two days after the shootings, Isabel Garcia also stressed that Arizona had become “an incubator of hate and violence,” especially with the state legislature “promoting an atmosphere of intolerance and cruelty.”
The government’s border militarization policy took the form of blocking off traditional crossing routes for migrants from Mexico, through populated urban areas in California and Texas, with “Operation Gatekeeper” being implemented in San Diego and a similar military-style operation in El Paso. As a result, migrants were intentionally funneled into the inhospitable and dangerous desert regions of Arizona, more than half of all border-crossers now taking the Arizona route. As Isabel Garcia stated, since 1994, more than 5000 of these migrants have died in the desert, from dehydration and exposure to the blazing sun.
These migrants are essentially “NAFTA refugees.” An estimated 6 million peasant farmers in Mexico, growers of maíz, have been driven off the land, unable to compete against U.S. government-subsidized corporate agribusiness, which under NAFTA was allowed to flood the Mexican market with cheap corn. The ruined farmers, along with numerous unemployed or drastically underpaid Mexican workers, are forced to seek their livelihood wherever they can, and large numbers attempt to migrate north to the U.S. in search of jobs.
But the U.S. government dehumanizes these migrants, labels them “illegal aliens,” and the huge number of unnecessary and preventable deaths among them is virtually ignored by officialdom and the corporate press. Meanwhile, the public in Arizona and elsewhere is made callous and hardened, inured to the ongoing cruelty. And many are frightened by the stream of impoverished migrants coming through the Arizona desert, don’t understand how and why they have been driven to make this desperate journey, and have no compassion for them.
The government policy of ICE raids—including a major raid in Tucson involving hundreds of federal agents and local police right around the time that SB 1070 was adopted—also suggests to the public that extreme and inhumane measures are necessary. A similar dehumanizing message, though less highly publicized, is enacted every workday in Tucson, as “Operation Streamline” processes 70 or more detained migrants each day, with chains on their legs, a parody of legal action, and then turns them over to a privatized prison-for-profit outfit, the Corrections Corporation of America.
On top of that, since the 1990s many migrants, but also Mexican Americans and American Indians who live near the border, have been killed with impunity, mainly by Border Patrol agents—most recently a 17-year-old youth in Nogales, Sonora, killed on Jan. 6, 2011, by the Border Patrol. The young man had scaled the 10-foot border fence, but there he met his death.
Two years ago, in May 2009, self-appointed vigilantes, inspired by hatred of Mexicans and wearing uniforms to give the impression that their actions were officially approved, invaded the home of a Mexican American family near the border south of Tucson. The family members were U.S. citizens living in the small town of Arivaca in full legality. The vigilantes killed the father of the family and his nine-year-old daughter, and wounded the mother.
No great outpouring of grief or outrage greeted that action. There was no visit by a U.S. president to southern Arizona to protest the killings. The corporate-owned media and the capitalist Establishment actually look with tolerance, even with favor, on the vigilante types, the so-called Minutemen and others, and encourage the hysteria and hatred voiced by these racists, who include self-proclaimed Nazis and “white power” advocates. The corporate bosses are happy to divide and conquer by encouraging racial antagonism by one section of the population against another.
Rather than denouncing and opposing the racist policies of the state legislature in Arizona, Obama & Co. act in a similarly harsh anti-immigrant manner. The White House website brags that nearly 400,000 “illegal aliens” were deported in 2010, hailing that as an unprecedented achievement.
Obama even boasted that “we now have more boots on the ground on our Southwest border than ever before in our history.” Obama’s actions spoke louder than words when, after the signing of SB 1070, he sent thousands of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, as if to say to the racists, “Yes, this unauthorized immigration is terrible and must be stopped by any and all means, including military violence.
In addition to what we have outlined above, another crucial aspect of this dreadful event in Tucson should be stressed. The mentally disturbed assassin was also, in a very real sense, a victim of the current economic crisis of the bankrupt capitalist system. Cutbacks in social services—while trillions go for war and bailouts of banks—had a ghastly outcome in this case.
Although Loughner obviously needed treatment for his mental disorders, and should perhaps have been in a mental institution, the social services to accomplish that were not available—particularly because massive cuts to mental health programs, along with all public health programs, have been made in Arizona, as in other parts of this country, since the economic crisis broke out in 2008.
Arizona’s long history of racism and violence
Tucson and a long strip of territory along the border in southern Arizona became part of the United States under the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, in the wake of the U.S. war against Mexico. That war had taken half of Mexico’s territory, adding all or part of seven new states to the USA.
Under the Gadsden purchase, the territory acquired by the U.S. for $10 million (under pressure and the threat of renewed U.S. war against Mexico) was particularly desirable because it was suitable for construction of a transcontinental railroad by a southern route from New Orleans, through El Paso, through Tucson, to California. The Southern slaveholders, who in the 1850s still dominated the U.S. government and its policies, were interested in such a railroad to help them extend their slave-labor, cotton-producing economy through the southern part of the newly acquired, former Mexican territories.
When the U.S. Civil War began, the slaveholders moved aggressively to occupy the southern part of what is now New Mexico and Arizona (all of it was then called New Mexico). They made Tucson the “western capital” of the former Mexican territory they had taken, and hoped to link up with pro-Confederate forces in southern California. But California had established itself as a free state, and a column of anti-slavery troops from southern California marched east and liberated Tucson from the slave power after a skirmish now referred to as the Battle of Picacho Peak.
After the Civil War, Arizona became part of the booming industrial expansion of U.S. capitalism as a whole, with the wage-slave system triumphing over the slave-labor system. In Arizona, the capitalist class wrote a brutal record of violence and harsh treatment against workers and oppressed nationalities, especially Mexicans and American Indians.
The notorious Bisbee, Ariz., deportations occurred in July 1917. Copper mining was a major source of profits for enterprising capitalists in Arizona, and with copper prices booming because of World War I, the Phelps Dodge corporation was making money hand over fist with its copper mine in Bisbee. Workers there, led by the IWW, sought to organize to win a larger share of the wealth their labor was producing.
When the workers went on strike in July 1917, the company used the excuse of “wartime emergency.” (The Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, had just taken the U.S. into the World War.) Phelps Dodge circulated the absurd charge that the striking workers and their organizers were “aliens” and “German agents.” Some 2000 pro-company vigilantes raided the homes of more than 1200 workers, deported them from Arizona in cattle cars, and left them stranded in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. Most of those workers—including Mexicans native to the area—were never able to return.
Similarly, in the copper mine strike of 1983-84 against Phelps Dodge, which also included many native-born Mexican American mine workers, the Arizona governor—again a Democrat, Bruce Babbitt—called out the National Guard and broke the strike with the use of harsh and violent police and military measures.
Capitalist violence was present, in fact, throughout the Southwest and West. One has only to recall the 1914 Ludlow massacre in southern Colorado, near Pueblo, in which dozens of organized mine workers and their families, many of them Mexicans, were killed or wounded. Thus we see that the culture of violence, the glorification of military action, the almost knee-jerk resort to military measures have long been a central, officially approved feature of life in these United States. (“Violence is as American as apple pie.”)
> This article was originally published in the February 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.