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Eyes on Arizona: Notes from the War Zone: A Conversation with Dr. Jason Ferreira

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During the hot summer month of June 2011, Jason Ferreira, Assistant Professor of Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University, joined with a multiracial group of his students to travel to the Arizona borderlands. Organized as the Eyes on Arizona Collective, they volunteered with No More Deaths, a non-profit organization who labors “to end death and suffering on the Mexico/U.S. border,” and built relationships with diverse community-based organizations engaged in dynamic social/racial justice work in Tucson (such as Tierra y Libertad, U.N.I.D.O.S, and artist-activists like Alex Garza and Carlos Valenzuela on the Pascua Yaqui reservation).

Coming from the nation’s only College of Ethnic Studies, from the very campus that gave birth to the fields of Black Studies and Ethnic Studies, the Eyes on Arizona Collective sought to jump directly into the mix, and confront the territory in which their history, their culture, their communities, their education, and even their lives are deemed suspect, subversive, and illegal. What they experienced transformed them. Upon returning to the Bay Area, the Collective engages in both organizing on campus and in the wider community. In particular, they are engaged in deportation defense work in San Francisco’s Mission District, are currently producing a video based on their experiences in Arizona, and also plan for another delegation in 2012. In this interview, aired on KPFA’s “Against the Grain only a few days after their return to the Bay Area, host C.S. Soong discusses with Dr. Ferreira the dynamics along the US-Mexico border, racism in Obama’s America, social movement strategy, multiracial solidarity, and the future of US democracy.

C.S. Soong

We return now to my conversation, recorded at our KPFA Berkeley studios, with Jason Ferreira, Assistant Professor of Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University. Speaking of Arizona, you spent sixteen days there, earlier this month, June 3rd to June 19th. You went down with ten students at SF State. What did you go there for?

Jason Ferreira

The reason we went was because we've all been very, very troubled with what has been happening in Arizona over the past few years. Of course, it's not just Arizona; it is also Alabama, and the Carolinas, and Indiana. There are many different places. But Arizona is like a cancer that spreads.... and Arizona is like the "mother tumor." And so we opted to go. Last year [2010] we did some organizing, we raised some money and we sent it to community-based organizations there. This year we wanted to up the level and we decided we wanted to go. And we wanted to work with a group, a very important group called No More Deaths, which essentially provides humanitarian aid to migrants in the desert. Every single day--today is no different than any other day--anywhere between one to two migrants will die attempting to cross the border into this country. And they will die not out of anything that they did, but they are dying because of a border policy that pushes people into the most desolate and the most dangerous sector of the US-Mexico border. That is, the desert. In particular, what they call the Tucson Sector. Very, very harsh and unforgiving environment that people are funneled into. So the policy is known as "deterrence by death." That somehow the idea is that if you funnel people into these desolate areas people will die and then because of that death people will no longer go. So what we did is we went down there and we said--and this is the slogan of No More Deaths--"humanitarian aid is never a crime." We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters trying to make a better life for themselves and so, therefore, we are going to go down there and we're going to work with this organization that provides water, that provides medical aid, and provides assistance like food and clothing to people as they traverse this deadly environment.

C.S. Soong

And what did you notice in the way of obstacles to those kinds of efforts?

Jason Ferreira

The biggest obstacle is the US State. The US federal government and the Arizona government. I mean, it's unbelievable, C.S....the violence. It is a violent environment, filled with Border Patrol agents, private companies who are investing millions of dollars into detention facilities and making a grip of money off of the human suffering and tragedy. You've got Minutemen down there, white supremacist organizations. It is a police state in Arizona. I cannot stress this enough. I'm a professor of Ethnic Studies--I've read the reports, I've read books...but nothing prepared me for the reality of what is taking place on the border down there. It demonstrates the lie that this is a democratic country. When you see the war that is being waged there on the border against Brown people, against Latino people. People live in fear. I heard stories of Border Patrol busting into peoples' homes, with guns pointed at parents' heads, saying things like "Say goodbye to your mom and dad, you're not going to be seeing them for a long time." This is Obama's America. And let me not mince words here: the number of deportations, the families that have been devastated by separations, by this climate of fear, has escalated under President Obama. Over 400,000 deportations every year, nearly a million deportations in the last two years alone....[this is] much worse than under Republican President George Bush. So what is happening in Arizona is a crime. It's a crime.

C.S. Soong

So Jason, you and your ten students from San Francisco State, one place you ventured into was the actual area, the zone, the place where it is 105 degrees out every day, and where immigrants, or would-be immigrants, are really fighting for survival. What did you and your students see that we, as people who maybe read general accounts of what is happening on the border, might not be aware of?

Jason Ferreira

It's difficult to explain. I pride myself on my ability to articulate myself...it's part of my job as a professor; I'm there to communicate. But what we witnessed when we were down in Arizona makes it very difficult for words to capture what we saw. This is why I called it a war. And it's a one-sided war...built upon a lot of pain. Things we saw: first of all, as I said, it's a very unforgiving, brutal environment. It's 105 degrees, you're hiking miles and miles and miles into these areas, and...you know, we had nice hiking boots, we had plenty of water, we had little gps systems, and WE struggled. And so you see the remnants out there, of people tearing off their clothing because they're dying from the heat, or you see bloody socks from blisters that people had on their feet. Of course, a blister to you or I here in the Bay is no big deal, we can treat it. A blister out there slows you down. You slow down, you lose track of the larger group that you may be with, and then you have no water, and then you're lost and next thing you know, you're suffering from heat exhaustion, dehydration (which can happen very, very, very quickly out there). So it means death. It's a very violent environment: from the Border Patrol, from the cartels, to the white supremacist vigilante organizations that are out there. All anyone has to do is just google J.T. Ready, who is an associate of Russell Pearce, one of the sponsors of SB 1070. J.T. Ready leads a hyper-militarized border patrol group which prides itself on monitoring the border. It's the Wild West. We stayed just outside of a town called Arivaca, which is the small dusty border town where 9 year old Brisenia Flores was murdered by, again, [members of] right wing vigilante groups. By Shawna Forde [founder of the Minutemen American Defense, M.A.D.]. One of the trials is actually taking place right now. So it's very violent. Panties...you would find panties in shrubs, or in cacti, or in trees that are used as a symbol of sexual violence. That is, it's a trophy.

C.S. Soong

Mmmm.

Jason Ferreira

The Border Patrol is violent. We would hike deep into the desert and do these water drops, to provide water on migrant trails, to leave water in places, where if they are thirsty they can pick up water, or open a can of beans, or put on a fresh pair of socks. The Border Patrol will slash the water jugs, which is nothing other than murder! The average time period upon which it takes a person to migrate just the area that we're talking about, around the Arivaca area, around Ruby (an old mining town), is like five days. You cannot carry enough water and food to carry you through the desert for those five days. So when the Border Patrol does that--and, of course, they deny it, but you can see their boot prints--it's murder. Plain and simple. I should say that No More Deaths is coming out with a new abuse documentation report in about a month that people will be able to download from their website, which I encourage everyone to do, but here's the thing: the violence directed against migrants, the violence directed against Brown people there in Arizona, is not just at the border. First of all, according to law, a hundred miles into any international boundary is considered the border. San Francisco is technically ... the Bay Area ... where we are right now in Berkeley, is considered part of the border because we're a hundred miles in from the maritime boundary, which gives Border Patrol free reign to do whatever they wish. But the struggles that migrants have to go through doesn't just stop there at the border, once they get to Tucson, once they get to Chicago; it's everywhere. It's everywhere. It's in the relationship between ICE and local law enforcement; it's S-Comm, so-called Secure Communities. So what you literally have, particularly in a place like Arizona, is you've got a large segment of the community living in fear. I mean, you have laws in Alabama now that turn teachers into immigration officials. It's the makings of an apartheid state. If not already an apartheid state.

C.S. Soong

One reason Arizona has been in the news is because of a boycott. People are pushing for a boycott of Arizona and a lot of groups are boycotting Arizona. So what do you think of that strategy, in relation to any other strategy, to get Arizona and hopefully the federal authorities within Arizona to change their ways?

Jason Ferreira

Personally I believe the boycott strategy is a short-sighted strategy. I think it's not particularly well-developed. If you talk to most people, they don't know who really is being boycotted. Are there particular businesses being boycotted? What's the end of the boycott? But it's an easy strategy because it allows people outside of Arizona to feel good about themselves by just not going to Arizona, by just turning their cheek and looking the other way. And it has had some success. I think that because a lot of tourist dollars have dried up, people have moved their conventions from Arizona, it's had an impact in certain legislative attempts by the right in Arizona to deepen the apartheid state there. They've suffered short set-backs. But I think the point I would like to make is that while I don't begrudge anybody from boycotting Arizona, and by all means they should if that is how they want to engage, but I think we can develop a deeper and longer term strategy. I go back to the Civil Rights Movement, I go back to the history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who in 1964 brought hundreds and hundreds of people down into the belly of the beast. And there were those at the time who said "let's focus on the border states, let's focus on easy campaigns, let's focus on urban areas," and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee differed with that and said, "No, if we're going to break Jim Crow in Mississippi, we need to engage Mississippi, we need to confront Mississippi, and we need to confront it in a way that builds power for the grassroots of Mississippi. The domestics. The sharecroppers." I believe it is the same in Arizona. It's too easy to turn from Arizona. We need to recognize, on the one hand, that there is a good Arizona, a beautiful Arizona. The metaphor I've used in my experience down there in Arizona is that the desert is brutal and deadly and also beautiful. What's deadly, what's brutal, [as I've described] is the environment; it's also quite frankly...the desert is very, very beautiful. But the human landscape is no different. The Border Patrol, the vigilantes: they are brutal, they are ugly. They are the equivalent of those jumping choya cactus. But it's also beautiful. What's beautiful about it? Peoples' persistence. Peoples' resiliance. I couldn't make that hike. These are people who are heroes! We need to engage them and build their leadership, an alternative Arizona. People talk about how "Another World is Possible," well, another Arizona is Possible. Not only is it possible, it's there. It's in the grassroots in South Tucson. Groups like Tierra y Libertad and U.N.I.D.O.S (the youngsters who are fighting for Ethnic Studies there), and in No More Deaths. So we need to do like SNCC, in my opinion, we need to engage THAT Arizona, support them with funds, support them with labor, so that they can confront--not us coming in to save Arizona--but to rather support those people who are in fierce struggle right now for a different type of Arizona. That's how I believe we as a nation... And how Arizona goes, in my opinion, is how this country will go.

Jason Ferreira

Are we going to be a multiracial democracy or are we going to be in some form of a fascist society? Because that is playing out in Arizona right now. It's going to be playing out in Georgia. It's going to be playing out in Alabama. But this is an opportunity. If anybody knows about fascism, it's African Americans. Coming back full circle to the subject of this essay [ in "Ten Years that Shook the City"] about the unity between Brown folk and Black folk. If anybody knows about fascism, it's African Americans. This is an opportunity for some serious multiracial solidarity to take place. One of the things that we just couldn't help, we just could not help but think about out on these migrant trails, was the Underground Railroad. And how peoples' determination to be free, peoples' determination to have a different future for themselves and their families and their communities, cannot be contained by the State. And we have an obligation, if we want our society to be a democratic society, to stand with them. To stand, to speak ,and to work with them. And it will take sacrifice, but that's democracy.

C.S. Soong

We have to leave it there. Jason Ferreira teaches in the Race and Resistance Studies program in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. And, again, his article about Third Worldism in the Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, is part of a new volume, "Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-1978," edited by the veteran activist and thinker Chris Carlsson. Jason, thanks so much for joining us in the studio.

Jason Ferreira

Thank you, C.S.

The entire interview can be accessed in KPFA’s “Against the Grain” archive.

All Our Relations

All photos are from Jason's personal collection

Dr. Jason Ferreira, serves as Assistant Professor of Race and Resistance Studies in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University

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