Almost 20 years ago, sometime in 1991, I found myself on local CBS station KPIX in a heated debate about the rap group Public Enemy. They had come under-fire for doing a video to the song ‘By The Time I get to Arizona‘. The song was a protest against Arizona lawmakers who at that time steadfastly refused to go along with honoring the Martin Luther King holiday. This was 7 years after it was signed into law by President Ronald Regan who had also refused to honor him but was forced to sign the legislation into law because he was Congress had handed him a veto-proof bill.
The video was controversial because it depicted re-enactments of the harsh treatment and attacks that took place during peaceful Civil Rights demonstrations in the 60s. The video showed marchers being assaulted with high pressured fire hoses and hauled away from lunch counters during sit ins after being humiliated by white store owners who refused to serve them . These scenes were interspersed with the group’s S1Ws soldiers arming themselves and preparing to go to war. The video ends with a re-enactment of King’s assassination juxtaposed with lead rapper Chuck D delivering poisoned chocolate to the Senator of New Hampshire (who also opposed the holiday) and blowing up the car belonging to the Governor of Arizona. Needless to say the video sent shock-waves around the country as folks suggested the group went too far and besmirched King’s non-violent philosophy by depicting acts of violence .
There was a lot of back and forth about this video, but as I had noted on the TV show that night, the video reflected a lot of the anger and frustration that had built up over the years amongst people who felt like hey weren’t being heard and King was being disrespected. Much of this anger stemmed from the callous attitude of former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham who’s first act when he took office in 1987 was to cancel the King Holiday. He later told Civil Rights leaders King didn’t deserve a holiday and they needed to get jobs.. If that wasn’t enough, in another infamous incident, Mecham took it way back to slave times by referring to Black kids as pickaninnies. He later defended his use of the word and added that he had Black friends who he had hired for ‘cotton-picking‘ jobs. This was the sitting Governor of Arizona in 1987.
Mecham’s remarks and action’s led to a nationwide boycott of Arizona which singer Stevie Wonder helped lead. The boycott resulted in more than 40 conventions pulling out including the NBA (National Basketball Association). Mecham’s arrogance added more fuel to the fire when he publicly suggested the NBA rethink their position ‘because white people go to their games’. Many took that to mean Mecham was calling for a white backlash to the boycotts. Fortunately that never happened except amongst some of Arizona’s lawmakers who steadily stayed on the grind trying to find new ways to keep the oppression going. As for Governor Mecham between the boycotts and other controversies and scandals he caused, he was impeached and removed from office a little over a year into his term. Ironically he was removed from office on the anniversary of King’s assassination April 4th 1988. But for many the absence of a King holiday in Arizona was a still a sore point.
In 1990 a couple of proposals were put before Arizona voters. One was to cancel Columbus Day and make room for the King Holiday. Needless to say this caused a rift between Black and Italian communities. The other was to create a new paid holiday specifically for King.. The vote was split between the two competing measures with neither one getting a majority. The word went out around the country that Arizona had once again rejected Dr King which led not only to PE doing their incendiary song but also the NFL moving the Superbowl XXVII from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe to the Pasadena’s Rosebowl. That was a major blow and embarrassment as Arizona continued to see its tourism industry slip. Finally In 1992 the state got in step with the rest of the nation and started celebrating the King Holiday.
It’s important to keep some of this history in mind as we look at the recent controversy surrounding Arizona’s harsh new immigration law which goes into effect in less than 90 days. It’s important to note that that Arizona has been notorious for resisting change especially when it comes to issues concerning people of color. The resistance shown by law makers over accepting the King holiday hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface. It’s a long and sordid history that goes way back. It’s also important to note that it wasn’t until Arizona started to get hit economically that things began to change.
Arizona’s Intolerance Goes Way Beyond Immigration
The reputation of Arizona lawmakers should be an indication that unless their intolerant beliefs along with mindset held by many within the state’s older population significantly changes, it’s gonna be a bit of a dogfight to turn things around, not just with respect to immigration but with other key issues impacting communities of color. It’s important to note that many of those intolerant, racist forces that resisted the King holiday were hard at work concocting the current anti-immigration Bill SB 1070. Lawmakers like Russell Pearce, the Neo-Nazi supporter with ties to the White Supremacist group, National Alliance who sponsored and co-authored this bill is a key example.
In 2008, the year Barack Obama was making history, Pearce attached an amendment to bill SB 1108 that would prohibit students on Arizona University and College campuses from forming groups based in whole or in part on race. Hence, well-known organizations like the; Black Student Unions, La Raza, Black Business Students Association (BBSA), MeCHA, Asian Student Union etc were all smashed on by this guy.
In recent days Arizona lawmakers passed house bill 2281 which essentially bans ethnic studies being taught in the classrooms. Pearce and his colleagues feel that ethnic studies undermine ‘American values‘ and that there is only one version to this country’s history and perspectives on key historic events. Current Governor Jan Brewer is expected to sign this sometime next week (May 11 2010).
And if all this isn’t enough, the Arizona Department of Education is now calling for the removal of teachers with accents from teaching English and ESL courses. The rationale is that a heavily accented teacher will be a detriment to students. The back story to this is that many feel this measure is a way for officials to selectively go after Chicano teachers who school districts may find objectionable because they are advocates for their communities.
To better understand this folks have to keep a couple of things in mind. First, everyone has an accent of some kind. There are regional accents like the ones we hear in New York, the midwest, in New England and of course throughout the south and in the southwest in places like Arizona. There are also ethnic accents. We hear them among Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans, Filipinos and Chicanos. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t easily understood and up until now this has never really been an issue. What’s being applied here is some sort of accent litmus test to make sure one has properly ‘assimilated’. The anti-immigrant fear held by many is that Mexicans are trying to take over the country and forcing everyone to speak Spanish and this accent test is just one way of taking away an important cultural identifier.
Another factor fueling this removal of accent holding teachers is the fact that there is are increasingly large numbers of Brown students entering Arizona public schools who are taking ESL classes. Their first contacts in the public schools are with Brown teachers who often times serve as more than just English instructors but play critical roles in helping build social and cultural bridges to the larger society. We’ve long known that for many students of color having teachers with similar backgrounds can be effective. That’s why there’s long been a push to get more teachers of color in the classroom. Now the state of Arizona wants to have the excuse to remove them, audit them and make life just in general uncomfortable as they apply this subjective accent test. Like I mentioned earlier, since everyone has an accent of sorts, how does one determine if accent is getting in the way of students learning English? Make no mistake it’s not accents they’re checking for, the end game is to break some of the important bridge building that often takes place in the classroom.
Fear of a Brown Vote
When you look at the history of Arizona and all the recent legislation that its passed, you can clearly understand that what’s taking place is not really just about protecting the borders. This is about maintaining political power and fear of an increasing Blacker and Browner country. Investigative reporter Greg Palast sums this up pretty well in a recent article where he writes:
Phoenix – Don’t be fooled. The way the media plays the story, it was a wave of racist, anti-immigrant hysteria that moved Arizona Republicans to pass a sick little law, signed last week, requiring every person in the state to carry papers proving they are US citizens.
I don’t buy it. Anti-Hispanic hysteria has always been as much a part of Arizona as the saguaro cactus and excessive air-conditioning.
What’s new here is not the politicians’ fear of a xenophobic “Teabag” uprising.
What moved GOP Governor Jan Brewer to sign the Soviet-style show-me-your-papers law is the exploding number of legal Hispanics, US citizens all, who are daring to vote – and daring to vote Democratic by more than two-to-one. Unless this demographic locomotive is halted, Arizona Republicans know their party will soon be electoral toast. Or, if you like, tortillas.
Sadly this country has a long history especially throughout the south and southwest of inventing new rules to suppress Black and Brown votes and thus severely handicap communities of color from obtaining political power. A quick look back during the Jim Crow era , you’ll note that there were voter ID laws in place forcing Black folks to meet a high burden of proof to determine their residence before then could vote. It was one of the key obstacles that was knocked down when Dr King was around. No wonder Arizona was so miffed at granting him a holiday.
Fear Mongering and the Rush to Divide and Conquer
If the fear of losing political power is what’s driving Arizona’s and other anti-immigrant laws sprouting up around the country, than we can better understand all the insidious tactics being used foster divisions between Black and Brown communities Divide and Conquer. In recent days I’ve been hit up with some ‘interesting’ emails and comments coming from a lot of self identified conservative whites suggesting that Black folks need to be worried about the ‘Mexican invasion‘. The pitch is usually along the lines of them first blaming high Black unemployment on Mexicans who they claim are taking over. Then they go in and start waving the flag for victims of Black/ Brown conflicts.
Here’s a recent example of this. A white woman blogger who calls herself the Madjewess hit me up after reviewing a post on my site featuring a mix of songs and commentary about oppression, political power and issues around immigration featuring artists like Immortal Technique, Rebel Diaz, Chuck D, Toki Wright, Invincible, Ice Cube and Anita Tijoux to name a few. This is what she wrote;
Then you MUST be taking up for your own people who are getting the SHAFT BECAUSE of these creeps!!!!! (Mexicans)
Where were you all when your people have been marching in LA?
What about one of the MANY victims of these ILLEGALS that are your people??
What about Jamiel??
Now on the surface one might’ve been able to take her concerns somewhat seriously until I checked her website and true to form she had all sorts postings in which she was referring to Black people like Attorney General Eric Holder as Militant Niggers and Mexicans as Wetbacks. She also talks about the need for ‘White Rage‘ but then wants to light up my page encouraging me to go smash on Brown folks. As mentioned before this is not usual This goes on all the time both on small and large scales with folks trying to pit us against one another. With respect to this poster bringing up the name Jamiel, she was referring to Jamiel Shaw who’s situation has been heralded by anti-immigration proponents
For those unfamiliar, Shaw was a young brother, who lived in LA and was a star athlete on his way to Stanford University. In March of ’08 he was approached by a Latino gang member named Pedro Espinoza who wanted to know what set he belonged to? When Jamiel didn’t respond quick enough he was shot and killed. It was later discovered that Pedro was in the country ‘illegally’ and had been released from prison just a day earlier. He was allowed back on the streets and never deported because of ‘sanctuary city‘ laws which didn’t allow local police to check his immigration status. Adding to this tragedy was the fact that Jamiel’s mother was away fighting in the war in Iraq. She learned of her son’s murder while on the battlefield.
Needless to say Jamiel’s killing sent shock-waves through LA and increased Black Brown tensions as people began comparing his slaying to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns orchestrated by Latino prison gangs and carried out by their street counterparts toward Blacks. Shaw was depicted as an innocent victim of this campaign and quite naturally it left people enraged, especially when it was noted that similar killings of innocent Blacks had taken place in Highland Park by the Avenues Gang, in Hawaiian Gardens by the Varrio Hawaiian Gardens gang which actually aligned themselves with the Aryan Nation and in Harbor Gateway near Torrance.
As mentioned earlier, anti-immigrant and Minute Men types have been riding hard with the Shaw killing and using it in some sort of macabre way to appeal to us as African-Americans urging us to stand alongside them and fight against Mexican illegals. This has been bothersome and odd on a number of levels. First, many of these individuals have made any attempt to join the ongoing neighborhood conversations or peace efforts around this and other gang related tragedies. These proponents have shown little interests in working with already existing on-the-ground organizations like the Gathering , GAP, Homeboy Industries, Amer I Can, Unity 1 or Homies Unidos to name a few who have been tirelessly working not only to bridge any Black-Brown divides but to bring an end to all violence plaguing the community and address the immigration problem. Former gang member Alex Sanchez founder of Homies Unidos spoke to this issue during a discussion on Black Brown unity. He brings forth how our communities both Black and Brown need to approach immigration as a human rights issue. He explains the complications behind simply deporting people. He explains this is not about harboring and protecting gang members.
What Sanchez speaks about goes against the narrative that many anti-immigrant foes want to push nationally. They have conveniently ignored the social and political realities faced by many communities including the fact that as tragic as Shaw’s killing was, it could’ve and oftentimes has just easily occurred in all Black neighborhoods with the killer claiming allegiance to a Crip or Blood set. The sad back story to his killing was he lived in a Blood neighborhood which had a long-standing beef with the 18th Street in the neighboring hood. It’s been reported that Jamiel because he lived in the neighborhood was familiar and cordial with folks who were members of that Blood set. Sadly in a place like LA, neighborhood affiliation is all it takes to be a victim.
This in no way absolves Espinoza who was eventually sentenced to death. But his horrific actions should not be held up as a terrible attribute of immigrant communities. Nothing could be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority are hard-working individuals who far too often find themselves prey to criminal elements both Black and Brown who have been known to extort, beat and rob undocumented folks knowing they are unlikely to call the police for fear of drawing attention to themselves and being deported.
The irony to having anti-immigrant right-wing Minute men types suddenly expressing interest in inner city problems is that many of these same individuals are the ones standing in the way of the community to solve them. These are the same people who will lambast the entire community and accuse us of being welfare cheats, affirmative action babies and lazy ‘no good drains’ on the system. These are the same folks who would stand firmly and aggressively to push back when we insist on putting an end: to racial profiling, the war on drugs, mandatory minimums and police brutality.
We know that cops and prison guards will pit two groups against one another. We seen it happen in political arenas when candidates try to split a vote . We see and hear it all the time with right-wing talk show hosts. I recall a few years back in LA on Clear Channel’s KFI their afternoon hosts Ken and John who are on Clear Channel’s KFI garnered national attention started airing a one hour segment called ‘The Kill Tookie Hour‘ They were referring to former gang leader turned peace maker Stanley Tookie Williams who was on death row scheduled to be executed. It angered many in the Black community who were fighting to keep Tookie alive and allow him to continue his peace efforts behind bars which included penning children’s books. It got so bad there were calls to picket the station. I recall going to a meeting about this is Lemiert park. These two guys went at for almost three months allowing racist call after racist calling for his death. They even threatened to lead a recall against the governor if he issued a stay. The pair showed up the night of execution to do a live broadcast outside San Quentin and cheered when he was killed.
Several months later in spring of 06 when the call for immigration reform led to large marches around the country, these guys started airing a segment where folks could call in and fire their undocumented workers on the air.. It was complete with white folks doing fake Mexican accents and lots of callers calling in talking about ‘This is America’ and how Mexicans should go back to Mexico and learn to speak English. On one segment they even brought on a Black landscaper from Miami and had a conversation about how there were no more Black landscapers because of Mexicans and the only one they could find was in Florida.
It wasn’t too long after that they along with other station hosts would find conservative Blacks including former homeless advocate turned Black Minute Man Ted Hayes to come on the air and talk about ‘how Mexican immigration was the worse thing for Black people since slavery’. These guys along with Clear Channel gave platform to these types of divisive voices, amplified them and made them seem like they were representative of the larger community thus fueling tensions between Black and brown communities while simultaneously shutting out the many others who spoke in opposition to this.
In this clip Alex Sanchez addresses some of the underlying issues I mentioned but also talks about the on the ground work him and others have been involved in. He represents the voices and perspectives of community members doing the hard work of building bridges that aren’t being acknowledged.
Mexican Illegals Are Terrorists
Along with Divide and Conquer tactics pitting Black against Brown, anti-immigrant foes are resorting to another tried and true method. They are creating a Willie Horton-type figure designed to scare all Americans into seeing not just so called illegals, but the entire Brown community as one that needs to be contained and suppressed by law enforcement.
Domestically, Brown communities are being associated with ‘super-gangs’ like MS13, Sureno and Norteno much the same way the Mafia is attached to Italian communities. Nightly TV shows like Gangland shown on the History Channel reinforce these stereotypes by routinely showing small-time gang members and blowing them up to be biggest menace in the history of their respective cities. If we had not experienced such gross exaggerations in our own city of Oakland, where one gang show asserted we had 10 thousand Latino gang members, we along like the rest of the country would be buying into the misrepresentations. It left many in both Black and Brown communities scratching their heads in disbelief. What was shown on that TV show did not reflect our realities-not in the least.
A few days after the show aired Oakland was hit with a series of ICE Raids. No doubt they were in search of these fictional 10 thousand gang members. Later it was discovered that a lot of the information put out for the world to see was being fed to producers by local law enforcement angling for extra funding for their departments. It was then that many of us came to fully understand how much of a political leveraging tool and money generator this Brown gang scare was not to mention it was a ratings boom for the outlets showing these programs.
Compounding this negative image that the gang shows have cemented in people’s minds are the drug cartels warring with each other in Mexico. Things have gotten so bad our government warning citizens not to go South of the Border. All this combined has this combined has resulted in a ‘New War on Drugs’ with Brown communities as ground zero. Unlike the War on Drugs targeting African-American communities a decade earlier this new war has a new element-Mexican Illegals being deemed as terrorists with people holding high office like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer underscoring the assertion.
This type rhetoric of the Mexican terrorist invasion versus hard working individuals seeking economic relief from extreme poverty being espoused by a sitting governor has been in the making for a minute. It’s been pushed in all come from all sorts of sectors ranging from former CNN host Lou Dobbs on down to Alex Jones (Obama Deception filmmaker) of Prison Planet/ InfoWars on down to the casual racist attending an immigration rally. Both Dobbs and Jones over the years have issued hysterical warnings about undocumented Mexicans being an ‘invading army’ who are part of the impending Reconquista Movement that wishes to return the to South and Southwestern part of the country back to Aztlan.
It’s troubling but I guess not surprising to hear a guy like Jones who will routinely smash on all sorts of fascist elements of this country. He’ll talk about how the government is out to spy on us, set up a police state, swindle us via Wall Street and build modern-day gulags and internment camps to imprison us. However, when it comes to dealing with the fascist type steps being taken against Brown folks he seems to have a difficult time containing himself. As far as Jones is concerned, the day labor we see standing on a corner looking for work is somehow connected to campus organizations like MeCHA or La Raza which Jones, calls the New KKK because they speak out against white supremacy, and they are part of the New World Order.
As you listen to this rhetoric keep in mind how similar sentiments have not only been applied to organizations in the past within the Black community, but were aggressively acted upon by our government via Cointel-Pro and with the end goal to disrupt and destabilize everyone from the Marcus Garvey on down to the Black Panthers, Black Muslims, SNCC, and various organizations around Dr King and the Civil Rights Movement. There was always a Fear of a Black Planet and now that fear has turned to ‘Fear of a Brown Planet with Mexicans and Arabs overseas being the primary targets. Its also become big business for those who have an ultra-patriot ‘Country First’ ideology to sell along with weaponry, border walls, fences etc.
Adding to this invading army theory and Mexican taking over is this notion of Brown folks ‘out-breeding‘ the rest of the population. Last year while on my way to Texas, I sat next to a woman who asked me if I was from California. Told her I was and she said she felt sorry for us because we were being overrun by ‘anchor babies‘. I had never heard the term asked her what she meant and she explained that California was being overpopulated by ‘illegals’ who were coming over having babies and making them citizens. She said it wouldn’t be long before they were the majority in the state. She than started reciting Dobbs and Jones talking points about how their end game was to reclaim California and make it part of Mexico. She said she was working with some folks in Congress to get a law passed that would not grant you automatic citizenship if you are born in the US.
Last week we heard Congressman Duncan Hunter out of San Diego say he would support a house bill that would eliminate automatic birthright citizenship for children born to undocumented immigrants. He’s quoted as saying; “And we’re not being mean. We’re just saying it takes more than walking across the border to become an American citizen…It’s what’s in our souls.”
As we move forward its important that all of us stop seeing the world and this country from a ‘me’, and ‘mine’ perspective but instead start looking at things from a ‘we’ and ‘us’ point of view. Like it or not the world is changing and with that change comes heightened responsibility and a richer consciousness. Part of that means taking into account how our foreign and corporate policies and politics impact the world around us.
We can’t on one hand cry foul about people working for cheap wages which are undercutting the American workers and then we go out and purchase product made with that cheap labor. If we gonna be about it, then be about it. Ante Up. Pay full price and don’t cut corners by paying below market wages if you wanna be patriotic and close the borders. This doesn’t just apply to what is taking place with undocumented workers crossing over from Mexico, but it also applies to those corporations who take America jobs overseas and pay 2 dollars a day for labor. We can’t enjoy the fruits of exploitation and not expect that to one day come back and impact us.
We can’t sit up here and freely export tons of images of a decadent over the top materialistic culture via our media and entertainment outlets, leaving folks with the impression that our streets are literally paved with gold and then not expect that to attract people living in extreme poverty. It’s naive to think folks are gonna stay away when they can clearly see that we have a lot to do with their impoverished conditions.We have imbalanced trade agreements, we support and even install corrupt leaders who rob and hoard much-needed resources from the people and we go to other places and take what we think we need or destroy natural resources for our own short-term gain.
This behavior is not limited to some untouchable government entity or some mammoth impenetrable corporation. A lot of this burden falls on us because of our own attitudes and behavior. We drive a lot of this economy from being the number one purchaser of drugs thus fueling a devastating drug war in Mexico to us exploiting cheap labor forces.The fact that we refuse to see beyond the confines of our own borders unlike the rest of the world that do.. we miss ample opportunity to not only engage our neighbors but work with them to help build up their regions.
In closing we have a responsibility to not forget history. These new anti-immigration laws are being driven by something deeper than us trying to protect our borders. It’s a deep-rooted fear that knows you can’t do wrong and expect it to last forever. This country was built on stolen land with stolen labor and has sustained itself by destabilizing and swindling the world around us-that can only go so far and for so long.
Lets us not fall on the wrong side of history when it comes to this issue..Say No to intolerance. Say No to Arizona