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By The Time I Get To Arizona

2010 April 27

Jan Brewer (right) has a thing or two to learn from Ariel Luckey (left)

Last Friday, the hapless and politically unskilled governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, gave one of the least impressive media performances of recent years at the press conference/signing ceremony for her state’s new immigration law. The law mandates, among other things, that police officers detain and demand documentation whenever “reasonable suspicion exists that a person is an alien, who is unlawfully present in the United States.” The punishment for legal immigrants arrested and unable to provide the full gamut of paperwork on the spot is six months in jail and a five hundred dollar fine.

Two of the event’s exchanges especially highlight what made the day so classic.

Reporter: It seems to me that while the bill says race and ethnicity may not be used as the sole factor, it does allow them to be used as a factor. How can that not lead to some form of racial profiling?

Gov. Brewer: No different than any other reasonable suspicion, Howie. I mean, we have to trust our law enforcement. You know, it’s a simple reality.

If law enforcement officials wield special expertise in terms of who is reasonably to be suspected of illegal immigration, then Gov. Brewer, the state’s top law enforcement official, was begging for this:

Reporter: What does an illegal immigrant look like?

Gov. Brewer: (4 seconds of grunts, stutters and silence) I do not know. I do not know what an illegal immigrant looks like. I can tell you that I think that there are people in Arizona who assume they know what an illegal immigrant looks like. I don’t know if they know that for a fact or not. But I know… that the law will be enforced civilly, fairly and without discriminatory, uh, points to it.

One wonders if Gov. Brewer runs the risk of being arrested as a suspected illegal alien from Canada.

Perhaps it was Gov. Brewer’s exasperated sign-off that inspired Meghan McCain to come to the defense of the beleaguered white Arizonans who “came under fire from the national media,” making them, apparently, the real victims here. In her article for The Daily Beast, she commendably called the law “flawed” and encouraged us to “hate” it, nonetheless going on to condemn President Obama’s depiction of the bill as “misguided,” on the grounds that “unless you are from a border state and have actually seen firsthand the effects illegal immigrants have on your community, I don’t think you can truly appreciate the complexities of the problem and how it should be litigated.” If anyone in Arizona would like to put in some time investigating the ways in which illegal immigration has depreciated the quality of life in the community inhabited by Meghan McCain and her billionaire parents, The Busy Signal would be much obliged for the insight to which McCain is uniquely privy.

That white people stole Arizona from Mexicans in the first place is lost from the debate, but it is not mere sophistry. Nor is it immaterial: perhaps the demand that white people relinquish this land to its rightful inhabitants is unrealistic, but, as context, the illegitimacy of our claim to the land is crucial. Describing illegal immigration as a “problem” (not to mention as “illegal” or even “immigration”) has to be colored with a hint of absurdity at best and callous bigotry at worst. Ms. McCain laments the recent murder of white rancher Robert Krentz, apparently at the hands of an illegal immigrant, but remains as silent as everyone else about the mass murder that predicated Krentz’ occupation of the land, not to mention Brewer’s or McCain’s.

To elucidate this viewpoint, I was privileged to interview Ariel Luckey, a hip-hop theater artist, educator and activist from Oakland, whose one-man show, “Freeland” chronicles his exploration into his family’s history with the Homestead Act and connection to the record of the land it got “for free.”

J.A. Myerson: For the last several years, the work that you’ve been doing has brought you into intimate contact with questions of land-ownership and immigration. Based on your experiences and discoveries, would you comment on the situation for immigration in the US in general and especially in light of this new law in Arizona?

Ariel Luckey: One of the biggest issues for me is the historical amnesia that happens in our society.  Part of it is how we forget or deny what we know or learned once, and then part of it is what we never learned in the first place.

Because of the dysfunction and racism of our education system, people don’t even know the history to begin with. The folks who write our textbooks are mostly wealthy white men: historians, text book authors, the companies that publish and distribute textbooks – that whole industry. The pedagogy within the school system is outdated and irrelevant and not helpful for young people, in terms of learning U.S. history in a way that allows them to think critically about what’s happening today. So people are not prepared or equipped to make the connections between what has happened and what is happening now. Even politicians, even folks who would consider themselves well educated, who can floss degrees from fancy institutions are, for the most part, fairly ignorant about, for example, Native American history. So that’s one of the most striking things to me that’s absent from this current debate: a complete lack of historical context

White folks only got to Arizona 160 years ago, so in the scheme of human history, which includes civilizations in China and Iraq that are thousands of years old (and even compared to the East Coast, where Europeans have a 400 year history), the colonization and the recent presence of European immigrants in the Southwest is like the blink of an eye.

JAM: There are people living now whose grandparents were living at a time when Arizona was not populated by white people.

AL: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. So the construct of what “immigrant” means, not in terms of its technical definition, but in terms of how people think about that word, has been totally distorted. It lacks a sense of historical precedent, because it was only 150 years ago, 2-4 generations ago, when white people were indeed the immigrants.

Interestingly enough, my family participated in that. My great grandfather on my father’s side moved out to Arizona in the early 1900’s. That was 50 years or so after the first wave of white folks got there, but their presence was still relatively new, in terms of the history of that land.  So I know that experience personally because it’s in my family, being white immigrants to Arizona. And if you ask any of the white people in Arizona today, that’s about as far back as they can possibly reach into their family history, with that land. They might be able to get to a great grandparent, but chances are either they immigrated or their parents immigrated or their grandparents immigrated.

That’s not much of a leg to stand on, in terms of some kind of moral authority in ownership of land. Relative to the Dine or the Hopi or any of the many tribes who’ve been there for thousands of years, generations and generations, the white politicians and activists who are running around now trying to pass anti-immigration laws look terribly myopic and confused.

JAM: Especially to the extent that they encourage people to describe them as “nativists.”

AL: It really is deeply and fundamentally ironic.

The United States started a war of aggression against the nation of Mexico, which we have to remember was itself a colonial state. Most of the politicians and heads of state of Mexico at that time were Spanish decedents from Europe and were themselves greatly oppressing the indigenous people of Mexico and also what is now the Southwest. Nevertheless, it was a war of aggression, completely illegal and unprovoked, and the U.S. won militarily.

Some people’s sense of history is “might makes right.” For some people, that’s all the justification they need. But for anybody else with a sense of justice and humanity and human dignity and the human right to your home and any of those other kinds of values, it’s pretty clear the U.S. didn’t have the legal or moral or ethical authority to do what they did and take over that land. So we now have a couple different generations of people who’ve been displaced.  The Mexicans stole land from the Dine and Hopi and all the other Native American tribes in the Southwest, and then they lost their land to the white settlers moving in.

JAM: In other global historical issues of displacement, a lot of people are given to dismissing the history because it’s so distant that it feels philosophical. If we’re talking about the Middle East, there are 4,000 year old claims being made to the land. Even if the topic is reparations for the theft of black Africans to Europe and the United States, we’re talking about a 500 year history, whereas this is really so recent, it’s in the modern era.

Greg Palast’s piece for Truthout claims that the real aim of the bill was not dealing with illegal immigration or even instituting bigotry, but bullying legal Hispanic immigrants who are citizens not to vote, since they vote overwhelmingly Democratically. He cites as evidence his reporting that a 2008 voter-roll purge of more than 100,000 Hispanics was engineered, on behalf of Karl Rove, by Gov. Brewer. Do you think there is legitimacy in that claim? Is this an attempt by the state GOP to retain what is now a threatened stranglehold on Arizona politics?

AL: My guess is that it’s probably a bit of both.

I haven’t heard that before, but it makes sense. I think we’ve seen in this country that the Republican Party and the economic elite will go to whatever lengths are necessary to maintain their power and perpetuate their interests and policies in the world. I don’t think that would be above them.

In terms of the illegal population, it’s a way to maintain the economic slavery in place.  (You can’t organize a union, you can’t protest work mistreatment, you can’t get higher wages, etc.) It’s a position of political and economic vulnerability which illegal folks hold in society that keeps them from being able to advocate for change and therefore makes them vulnerable to exploitation and oppression.

In terms of Mexican Americans or other Latino citizens, it makes them almost as vulnerable to on-the-street harassment as illegal immigrants are. Racial profiling on the street, harassment, detainment, increased fear, the psychological and emotional circumstances – it all has an impact on people.

And certainly there’s the message very clearly: “You and your people are not welcome here, that you’re not wanted here, you’re not safe here, you’re not protected in the ways that the US government claims that its citizens are supposed to be protected.”

A lot of times, the line between “legal” and “illegal” runs right down a family. So a cousin or a brother or a wife might be illegal and you might not be, but you’re going to experience that targeting nevertheless.

JAM: Numbers released today by Public Policy Polling  show that Democratic candidate Terry Goddard leads Gov. Brewer among Hispanics by 71-25, which is a 26-point improvement over the same poll in September and a 30-point improvement over Obama’s performance in the 2008 election. So, if Palast is right, enthusiasm alone may make the plan backfire.

Whether or not we agree with Palast’s assertion that this is a primarily political move, as opposed to a race-driven one, it’s clear that the racial demographics are shifting rapidly in the direction of an increasingly abundant Hispanic population. If Mexican-Americans gain political dominance in the states that were formerly Mexican territory, that will add a very interesting chapter to the story of the land, won’t it?

AL: Absolutely, and I do think that the mostly white Republican Party is aware of that possibility and scared of it and working to prevent it. If you listen to the rhetoric of the Tea Party, there’s all this talk about “the good old days” and “going back to how things were before.” I think that to a large degree, they’re talking about before the civil rights movement and before communities of color became the majority in certain states like California and accumulated the subsequent economic and political power that they now have. They’re talking about going back to the good old days of white power and dominance.

The fear that they’re able to leverage in the white community is very racial and it’s very much based on that. I think that that kind of fear-mongering is what allows these kinds of laws to pass, not in terms of the people who are orchestrating them, but in terms of the broader white community who is either neutral or supportive of the laws. The crafting of the construction of the “evil illegal immigrant” who’s going to come and take your jobs and date or rape your daughter and take over and bring crime and drugs and all the stereotypes and stories: that is carefully constructed as a stereotype and an archetype in society, and used to leverage support around legislation like this.

JAM: It’s stupid and wrongheaded to feel fear about Mexican-American political dominance in the Southwest, but at least those who fear that are fearing something that appears actually to be happening (though the “rape your daughter and steal your job” thing is obviously pretty ludicrous).

AL: It speaks to this construction of race, in which the interests of white people are somehow automatically different than the interests of Latinos. The construction holds that if Mexican-Americans have a majority in Arizona and if they elect politicians who look after their interests, that’s somehow automatically going to be bad for white folks. The only reason that idea exists is because the current system is set up to benefit white folks unfairly, economically and politically. So what the white community is really scared of it losing the advantages and the privileges that it currently enjoys in this system. They stand to lose the unfair advantage in a leveling of the playing field.

Folks are used to this system, folks are comfortable. I have family members who live in Tucson, and they’re quite comfortable with the status quo. They don’t really care about the well-being and benefit of the members of the Latino and Mexican-American community. They haven’t been scared of or upset about the continuing crises of folks who are struggling there economically or socially or politically. It’s kind of like, “Oh, now it’s a problem!” It was okay when the system was slanted your way, but now that things are changing, you just want to hold on to that control. And it’s understandable, to a certain degree. But it fundamentally undermines the idea of democracy, which is that the system is supposed to take care of all of us. That’s not capitalism, but that’s the ideal that this country proclaims.

JAM: By way of a closing thought, what would you inject into the debate, how would you inject it and what the effect be?

AL: There is a paradigm in place in our country and our society around private property: property owners are to be protected almost completely by the law and can do whatever they want on their land, and the government is really set up to protect the interests of the property owners and the land owners.

There’s something about the righteousness and sense of authority that the white community has in Arizona that is completely unfounded. What they’re standing on and “protecting” is stolen land. And make no mistake, there were massacres in Arizona, and there has been generation after generation of economic exploitation and ecological destruction. Families were murdered; children were murdered for them to be able to say now, “This is our state. This is my property.”

One of the things I would inject into the conversation is a sense of moral outrage that these folks would have the audacity to stand a generation or two after a massacre, after an illegal war, after all of the corrupt politics that have gone on in Arizona, and try to pretend that they have the political or ethical or moral authority to tell someone else where they can and cannot be. I wish the broader society had a sense of that, which comes to some degree from just having the historical information, but also from making connections.

They’re pointing the finger at the Mexican-American community and saying, “You’re illegal. You’re not supposed to be here. You’re not welcome here.” The white people of Arizona really need to look at themselves and their own family’s histories and their own sense of identity and their own sense of propriety and their own sense of “I am empowered and entitled because I claim this land to be mine” and really check themselves. Because it’s not a mentality that’s serving the interest of the world, or even ultimately serving themselves.

This issue is not going to go away. Mexican Americans are not going to go away. It’s just going to continue to be a battle until the dynamics change. As the perpetrators of genocide in the Southwest, as the perpetrators of land-theft, as the perpetrators of economic exploitation, &c. the white community in AZ has a lot to account for. White Arizonans have to account for themselves and their ancestors and their own actions before they have any position to point a finger or pass laws to stop and interrogate and detain and harass any other community on the streets.

3 Responses
  1. Thomas Plazibat permalink
    May 6, 2010

    At the heart of this issue is business interests and corporations wanting insure the supply of cheap labor, and to put downward pressure on wages. Therefore the elite use the old tactic of divide and conquer, by pitting working class whites against working class hispanics, while they divert attention from the real issues and maintain control over the masses. So this whole issue is purely diversionary.

  2. Qtifaray permalink
    May 13, 2010

    Well said…. keep up the hard work…and thank you..

  3. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    May 13, 2010

    Wow, really great interview. And as someone who has a deep love of history and the study of history, I have to agree with Ariel Luckey about the epidemic of societal amnesia that plagues us. Our memory is far too short term, and its to our expense. We need to remember and learn from our history because it has deep implications for us, and our society, today.

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