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Normalizing Noncompliance: Militarization and Resistance in Southern Arizona

Laws like SB 1070 are meant to divide people from one another by reifying fear, distrust and violent the exclusion of some. The We Reject Racism campaign worked to directly confront this process through cross-sector organizing that undermined pre-existing divisions in our communities and worked to mitigate the impacts of the law.

by Geoffrey Boyce and Sarah Launius

In 1857, Lieutenant Sylvester Mowry of the United States Army wrote to Congress with a petition signed by more than 300 prominent Anglo settlers in the Santa Cruz River Valley that consisted essentially of a plea for the newly acquired lands around Tucson to be made a US territory independent of New Mexico. The reasons were simple: indigenous resistance to Anglo settlement was too fierce (as it had been against the Spanish before) and banditry and lawlessness were too widespread for capital to feel secure investing in the region. According to Mowry, the United States military was only at present able to maintain control and stability along the river valleys, and even these were not safe from raiding and banditry; the settlers had formed an armed militia, but were constantly under threat. The vast mineral and agricultural wealth that was anticipated in the territories acquired in the Gadsden Purchase--not to mention the agricultural potential of the Gila, Santa Cruz and Salt River flood-plains--could not be profitably exploited until the surrounding territory had been pacified. There was need for a strong central military and administrative presence that could operate quickly and independently from Santa Fe, with whom communication and coordination were too slow, irregular and cumbersome to respond effectively to threats on settler infrastructure. Congress ignored Mowry’s pleas, until February 12, 1862, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared Arizona as an independent, pro-slavery Confederate territory.

Yet armed indigenous resistance continued until the surrender of Geronimo and his troops in 1886, by which time the advent of the inter-continental railroad had allowed for rapid military deployment and a massive demographic influx of mostly Anglo settlers from the eastern United States--a process that has continued unabated ever since. Since 1910, Arizona’s population has consistently doubled every 20 years, from 200,000 people to 6.6 million today. In the 2000 census, the migrant population of Arizona was 64.2%: domestic migrants (from other parts of the United States) accounting for 51.4% of this total, and "foreign" migrants accounting for 12.8%. The website for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (a major supporter of laws like Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070) lists among the “foreign languages spoken in Arizona” the following: Spanish, Navajo, Apache and Akimel O'odham. Who gets counted as a “foreigner” and who “belongs” is a direct legacy of the conquest of this territory by the United States some 160 years ago; access to land, jobs, resources, rights and protections for some, and the systematic disenfranchisement, criminalization, incarceration and removal of others, cannot be adequately understood outside of this framework. These distinctions represent the literal living, breathing colonial present in what is today the state of Arizona.

We begin this paper with this history because it leads to several arguments we wish to elaborate below:

  • 1. Militarization is nothing new in relation to everyday life in the borderlands;
  • 2. SB 1070 is merely the latest in a long string of efforts – both military and juridical--to secure the benefits of conquest against those deemed outside the constitutive boundaries of the conquering party;
  • 3. Questions of “law” and “lawlessness” cannot be disassociated from these other issues, including those of race, class and economic exploitation. When viewed from a regional, historical perspective the meaning and significance of laws like SB 1070 take on new light, exposing the continuity of conflict and repression that we see erupting once again in Arizona.

The Militarization of the Southern Arizona Borderlands

The militarization of the US/Mexico border, begun in the late 1970s but intensified after the 1994 launch of Operations Gatekeeper and Hold the Line (in San Diego and El Paso, respectively), has had profound impacts on communities in southern Arizona. Following largely successful efforts to shut down unauthorized migration through more densely populated areas like San Diego, California and El Paso, Texas, unauthorized cross-border migration began to concentrate in the Arizona borderlands--first in Cochise County (in southeastern Arizona) and steadily progressing westward into the Altar Valley and the Tohono O’odham Nation (southwest of Tucson). In 1996 the U.S. Border Patrol launched Operation Safeguard, building the sheet-metal walls that are seen today in Nogales, Naco and Douglas/Agua Prieta and increasing the number of agents assigned to the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. This was followed by the Arizona Border Control Initiative and SBInet, which invested billions of dollars in new agents, vehicles, surveillance technologies (such as unmanned aerial drones) and detention infrastructure, much of which was outsourced to companies like Boeing, Wackenhut and Corrections Corporation of America.

The primary impacts of this enforcement buildup have been felt by families and communities who have been subject to surveillance, raids, arbitrary detention and interrogation, violence, deportation, and the social tensions that result. Impacts have also been tremendous in rural areas. The fragile Sonoran desert eco-system, whose range extends far beyond the international boundary, has been a primary casualty of the border security regime. The security and sovereignty of indigenous peoples have been routinely violated, with access restricted to traditional ceremonial areas, ongoing harassment, and widespread intrusion of federal authorities onto native lands.

The city of Tucson, where the authors reside, is located some sixty miles north of the international boundary between Mexico and the U.S. Despite its remove, Tucson has historically identified as a border city--that is, since the border has existed, first to its north and later to its south (following the implementation of the Gadsden Purchase in 1854). It is at once removed from the heavily militarized stretches of Sonoran Desert scattered with smaller cities and towns to its south and is at the same time the central hub out of which over 3,000 Border Patrol agents are deployed along the 262 linear-mile Tucson Border Patrol Sector.

Presently approximately 40% of all clandestine migration across the US/Mexico border takes place in the Tucson Sector (According to Department of Homeland Security statistics), a number that has remained consistent since at least the late 1990s. Every year hundreds of bodies are recovered out of the Arizona desert (253 in fiscal year 2010 alone)--likely a mere fraction of the total number of fatalities. The deaths of migrants, though tragic in-and-of themselves, are only an indicator of far more widespread violation and disregard of the rights and dignity of the people who live in the borderlands.

Troubling the Inside/Outside Binary: Expanding the Border Across Arizona

Since the middle of the last decade the State of Arizona has begun a slow war of attrition against unauthorized migrants and the communities they are a part of. This process began with the passage of Proposition 200 in November 2004, requiring proof of citizenship to vote (a “solution” to a problem that had never been documented to have existed in Arizona). By November 2006 the state had passed five anti-immigrant voter propositions and many more anti-immigrant bills through the state legislature, a trend that would only continue and intensify. In combination, the propositions alone deny unauthorized immigrants rights to bail if charged with Class 1, 2, 3, or 4 felonies; deny civil lawsuit awards; deny in-state tuition for unauthorized students; prohibit any type of financial assistance that is funded with state money; and make English the official language of Arizona.

In April 2010 a confluence of state-level migration controls and racialized attacks swept through the state, affecting national electoral politics and emboldening calls for expanded border security. On April 15, communities in Arizona became the target of one of the largest coordinated federal immigration raids in recent history; involving more than 800 agents from a half dozen separate state and federal law enforcement agencies. On April 23 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070) into law. On Tuesday, May 11 Brewer then signed House Bill 2281 (HB 2281) banning ethnic studies curricula in Arizona public schools. Mere weeks apart, the two bills quickly placed Arizona on center stage in the national debate concerning immigration control, with the latter bill making explicit the racial subtext that underlines both.

SB 1070, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, mandates that local and state law enforcement cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, produces new criminal restrictions on day laborers, and empowers citizens to sue any government agency they perceive to be failing to fully implement the law. Specifically, the legislation institutionalizes racial profiling by requiring all law enforcement to ask about a person’s immigration status when they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person may be undocumented, criminalizes unauthorized migrants for “trespassing” in Arizona (making it a state misdemeanor to be in Arizona without papers), requires all law enforcement to detain anyone without immigration papers and hand them over to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or Border Patrol, allows law enforcement officers to arrest someone without a warrant if they have “probable cause” to believe the person has committed a “deportable” crime, and targets day laborers by making it a crime to solicit work in any public place. The explicit purpose of these measures, written into the law, is “attrition through enforcement”--that is to say, a “soft” form of ethnic cleansing that would drive out unauthorized migrants, their families and communities by destroying their livelihoods, increasing their vulnerability to arrest and prosecution, and subjecting them to harassment and intimidation to the point that they will, en masse, decide to leave the state on their own initiative.

Yet while many in Arizona and around the country were outraged by the contents of SB 1070, few took notice of the extent to which many of its provisions already operate as a matter of local, state and federal policy. Since January 2009 the Obama administration has devoted itself to increasing the detention and removal of “criminal aliens”, much of which has been accomplished through programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities. These programs facilitate the collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, expanding the reach of immigration enforcement far into the interior of the United States. Seventy-two jurisdictions in 24 states have already adopted 287(g), and the Department of Homeland Security has announced that it hopes to make Secure Communities mandatory for every law enforcement agency in the United States by 2013. Among the outcomes of this policy thrust has been historically unprecedented numbers of immigration removals under the present administration (close to 500,000 deportations in 2009 alone).

For communities within 100 miles of the border, police/immigration collaboration is even more widespread and insidious, in large part due to its informal nature. As an example, in the city of Tucson police officers have discretion over whether or not to call the U.S. Border Patrol on anyone with whom they come into contact. Oftentimes this practice takes place prior to arrest or citation, leaving little or no paper trail by which to challenge or document the practice. Every year there are thousands of people deported from Tucson following minor traffic stops or other interactions with police in neighborhoods, shopping centers and public spaces; individuals so detained are immediately taken into Border Patrol custody and frequently pressured into signing a voluntary departure form that expedites their removal from the United States. For example, on May 6, 2010, Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan González interviewed Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik about his opposition to SB 1070. While many celebrated Dupnik for his vocal opposition to the law, few (including Goodman) paid attention to or challenged him on the reasons he articulated. Said Dupnik, “If we were to start enforcing this law instead of turning them over to the Border Patrol like we do now, we would have to put them in the Pima County Jail. We would put the jail into a crisis overnight. We would have to overwhelm the rest of the criminal justice system locally here and send the taxpayers a huge bill, which is just nonsense, in my opinion.”

Dupnik’s opposition to the law was due to his belief that it would make an informal practice that streamlines police/Border Patrol collaboration more bureaucratic and cumbersome. A la Dupnik, for many areas of the state SB 1070 merely came to mandate and formalize practices that were already informal and widespread.

This drives home a larger point: in the popular narratives around immigration enforcement, the perceived threats or targets of enforcement have changed frequently. Border enforcement has largely been discussed as a means to keep those deemed as illegitimate outside of the territory, while internal enforcement has shifted the easy inside/outside binary to suggest that there are illegitimate bodies within the territory that must be removed. In Tucson there is little distinction that can be made between “internal” and “border” enforcement as they are commonly constructed. Since at least the turn of the century, border enforcement in and around Tucson has always and already been internal enforcement–-policing the movement of bodies through border cities based on race, ethnicity, class, etc. Despite the narratives that would imagine border controls as limited to keeping those who do not belong outside of the national territory, such policies and practices produce a policing of all inhabitants as possible threats to homeland security.

The “We Reject Racism” Campaign and Local Movement Responses

The aftermath of SB 1070 saw the emergence of widespread opposition across the state, including spontaneous actions like the student walkouts in Phoenix and Tucson that took place in the weeks immediately preceding Governor Brewer’s signing of the law. Responses from more institutionalized sectors in Arizona varied in tactics and geographic scope. Many focused on organizing marches and other large, visible acts of protest. On May 29, 2010, hundreds of thousands of Arizona residents marched through Phoenix in the largest show of force since the 2006 national immigration uprising. Other protest actions included sit-ins and occupations at the Arizona state capitol, the Border Patrol Tucson Sector headquarters, Senator John McCain’s office, the Arizona State building in Tucson, and the blockade involving hundreds of people of the Maricopa County Jail on July 29, 2010, disrupting one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous immigration raids. Through many of the massive demonstrations and direct actions a shared rallying cry could be heard: “We Will Not Comply!”

Yet such spectacular shows of opposition to disrupt the operation of racist laws and policies like SB 1070 and 287(g) are fleeting in comparison to the sustained, everyday experiences of criminalization, harassment and marginalization that laws like SB 1070 institutionalize. Although by no means a dramatic break from the more quotidian realities of immigration enforcement, SB 1070 nonetheless made clear to many the need to strengthen more sustained movement infrastructure and everyday methods of resistance. Here we will focus on one local attempt to develop such infrastructure, the “We Reject Racism” campaign launched by No More Deaths and Tierra y Libertad Organization in May 2010. We use this example not to signal our belief that it was the most important or effective response to SB 1070, but because of our own direct participation and experience in this campaign, and our belief that it points to some of the challenges and opportunities that have become clear in the aftermath of SB 1070.

The purpose of the Tucson-based We Reject Racism campaign was to try to move debate in southern Arizona away from ‘immigration’ and toward the underlying realities of race and racism giving shape to these laws. One goal was to reframe and unsettle popular narratives that helped to legitimize the law (e.g. Rassumusen polls claiming that “70% of Arizonans support SB 1070”). Another was to force those who were not directly targeted to take a public position on the law, and to back opposition with action. The campaign focused primarily on three different themes: visual resistance, marking an anti-racist city; normalizing non-compliance with racist and anti-immigrant policies; and mitigating the impacts of such policies in the form of “protection networks.”

Both Tierra y Libertad Organization and No More Deaths focused their energies in the communities where they had the greatest traction and representation, with the collaborative nature of the campaign meant to bridge the distance and differences between them. For No More Deaths, a primarily Anglo and traditionally humanitarian organization, this meant working in the white, Anglo community, challenging Anglos who had so far remained neutral to take a public position on SB 1070 and to make clear whether or not they would be complicit with its enforcement. Meanwhile, Tierra y Libertad Organization continued to extend its reach and build strength through barrio-based organizing oriented toward autonomy and self-determination.

Through one-on-one conversations with residents and shopkeepers, the campaign distributed thousands of yard signs meant to demonstrate visible opposition to SB 1070. Campaign participants encouraged each household to become part of a neighborhood protection network intended to position non-targeted individuals in active solidarity with those directly targeted by SB 1070, so as to mitigate its effects. More than 137 businesses and workplaces, distributed across the city of Tucson, joined the campaign and pledged not to cooperate with SB 1070 or allow it to be enforced on their premises. On July 22, 2010, an entire Southside Tucson business district, Plaza Azteca, declared itself an anti-racist zone and announced that every shop in the plaza had agreed to noncompliance with SB 1070. Each of these actions represented a small intervention on the part of campaign participants to actively defend peoples’ right to be in and of the city, regardless of their immigration status. Yet the cumulative effect was to build visible resistance across the city of Tucson, demonstrating the strength of opposition to the law and negating some of the intimidation that it was meant to effect.

Conclusion: Turning the Tide for the Long Haul

When federal judge Susan Bolton stayed much of SB 1070 on July 28, 2010 many breathed a sigh of relief, believing this to be a short-term victory for the law’s opponents. Yet as described above, many of the policies and practices mandated by SB 1070 remain in place and are expanding into the interior of the United States (and here we refer not only to “copycat” laws following the model of SB 1070, introduced into state legislatures nation-wide). With programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities the “border” has become detached from its geographic referent, producing exclusion and marginality at finer and more extensive geographic scales. The We Reject Racism campaign represents one small attempt to fight back against this trend, yet one that explicitly sought to reframe the issue away from “immigration,” and to span the divisions that become naturalized through the regime of immigration enforcement and neocolonialism.

For too long much of the “immigrant rights” movement has focused on winning Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) from the federal government. Yet to this date these efforts have failed to realize any meaningful legislation that would address and improve the condition of non-status immigrants in the United States; even the DREAM Act (providing a path to legalization for those who entered the United States as minors and completed two years of college or military service) failed to pass congress. In the meantime, racist anti-immigrant policies continue to proliferate across the United States at the local, state and federal level, facing only local and limited resistance (the 2006 national immigration uprising excepted).

The CIR strategy centered its focus of struggle on “immigration,” when in reality attacks on “immigrants” are intrinsically connected to the broader suite of contemporary attacks on working people, colonized peoples and other people of color in the United States. Efforts toward CIR took focus away from local livelihood struggles or broader questions of criminalization and incarceration, and operated at a scale that was unapproachable for most people in their everyday lives (e.g. it takes specialists, located in Phoenix or Washington, to lobby for a bill). This critique is meant to be more pragmatic than ideological– by focusing on CIR as the primary means of addressing the challenges in our communities we continue to lose on this and every other front.

Legislative and electoral strategies are by no means unimportant; but they are insufficient (and ineffective) on their own. The state of Arizona, since its inception, has implicitly or explicitly attempted to subjugate non-Anglo people in order to secure the benefits won in the conquest. This is continued in the “wild west” mentality that inherently conflates the presence of working people and people of color with “lawlessness.” It is imperative that we move beyond legislative efforts to strengthen bases of solidarity and mutual aid that have the capacity to fight these racist attacks locally, mitigate their effects and build transformative relationships and momentum.

The We Reject Racism campaign represents one model of moving resistance forward in our everyday lives and communities, and we share it here because we believe it is vital that those of us committed to this struggle learn from one another in moving forward. We do not wish to suggest that the model used by participants in this campaign should be the normative model for organizing. Nor do we mean to suggest that every aspect of the campaign was entirely unproblematic or adequately realized. We do, however, believe that the set of strategies pursued within this campaign offer possibilities for directly confronting militarization and criminalization in our everyday lives and communities.

Laws like SB 1070 are meant to divide people from one another by reifying fear, distrust and violent the exclusion of some. The We Reject Racism campaign worked to directly confront this process through cross-sector organizing that undermined pre-existing divisions in our communities and worked to mitigate the impacts of the law. We believe this was a promising example that mirrored other efforts across Arizona during the summer of 2010 that aimed to turn the tide against these racist attacks, one neighborhood at a time.

Geoffrey Boyce and Sarah Launius are at the University of Arizona School of Geography and Development.

"Go to Jail" from Parker Brothers' Monopoly game. Other graphics from Arturo Aldama archive.

Copyright © Geoffrey Boyce and Sarah Launius. All rights reserved.