By Joel Olson
In the struggle over the notorious anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-working class law SB 1070, a person might be tempted to see this as a conflict that plays out among the elites of Arizona politics: legislators, governors, sheriffs, newspaper editors, judges, lawyers, and nonprofits. This view would be understandable, but wrong. The real battle is at the grassroots.
On the one hand, there is a strong nativist movement afoot in Arizona that is overwhelmingly white, mostly over the age of fifty, and largely male. They fear that “illegals are invading” and causing all manner of mayhem, from home invasions to overcrowded emergency rooms to automated voices forcing them to “press 1 for English.” They are represented by the Tea Party and local politicians such as State Senator Russell Pearce. Their goal is to hound and harass all “illegal aliens” out of Arizona—and if they have to check the papers of every brown-skinned person in the state to do it, fine. “Attrition through enforcement,” Pearce calls it. That phrase is now written into Arizona law. At their demand, SB 1070 turns every cop in the state into an immigration officer, practically requires racial profiling, and denies the freedom of Arizonans to associate with whoever they please, documented or not. With the passage of 1070, nativists are confident that they control the territory.
But what happens when you hold a Tea Party and a bunch of “illegals” show up?
Facing down the nativist faction is a ragtag, underfinanced, increasingly fearless, and thoroughly working class movement that seeks to destroy SB 1070 and replace the Tea Party’s bogus call for “small government”—by the way, how is a government where every cop is empowered to check your papers “small”?—with a real call for freedom of movement and association. The hope for Arizona rests with this group that is fighting at the grassroots for the freedom to live, love, and work wherever you please.
One of the first battles between these two forces took place last Tuesday in the small mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona (population 60,000). The Flagstaff City Council voted 7-0 to sue the state government to prevent SB 1070 from going into effect. (Earlier that day, Tucson’s city council voted 5-1 to do the same thing. Now other towns, such as Yuma and Naco, are also threatening to file an injunction.)
This decision from within the most nativist state in the nation came as a shock to many. True, Flagstaff has a reputation for being a liberal bubble, but the city council hardly has a stellar record of standing with people of color, as anyone from the Save the Peaks Coalition could tell you. The city council has been hostile to this indigenous-led effort to prevent the local ski resort from using Flagstaff sewage water to make artificial snow on a mountain that is sacred to thirteen tribes. (That’s right, they want you to ski on pee.)
Further, a poll taken just after SB 1070’s passage showed that seventy percent of Arizonans supported it. And when Rush Limbaugh heard that over 150 people came to the previous Flagstaff City Council meeting urging them to file an injunction, he told his listeners to besiege the Council with calls in support of 1070. Over the next few days, Flagstaff’s little city hall received a slew of racist voice mails and several death threats. Then the local Tea Party put out a call to pack the next meeting.
But they didn’t count on getting beat at their own game.
The Tea Party nationwide prides itself on being a grassroots organization feared by politicians. They probably thought that a good word from Limbaugh would help them bumrush city hall and put this whole injunction business to rest. But that was before they met the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots organization that seeks the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in the state of Arizona and believes in the freedom of all people to live, love, and work wherever they please. (For more on the work of the Repeal Coalition, see my previous article, “New Arizona.”)
While Limbaugh blathered on, the Repeal Coalition held a mass meeting in the local Catholic church to put pressure on city hall. Sixty adults and twenty kids, most of them Latino, most of them undocumented or related to someone who is, came after work in their McCafe uniforms, bounced babies on their laps, and in a sweltering room for two and half hours, patiently developed a strategy—hashed out in Spanish and English—to keep the pressure on the city council. They planned a protest before the council meeting, and then to pack the meeting chamber itself. The Tea Party boasted it would do the same.
At 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday, people began trickling in to the chambers, while a crowd opposed to SB 1070 gathered on the street in front of city hall. Repeal members handed out scraps of paper to people as they filed in, suggesting that if they spoke before the council during the meeting they should demand that the council condemn SB 1070 and vote to file an injunction against it. By 5:30, over two hundred people were jammed into the council chambers. The room was stuffed so full the fire marshal had to shut the doors.
But only about thirty people were from the Tea Party. Opponents of 1070 had them outnumbered six to one. Plus there were a hundred people watching a live feed of the event in the lobby. Plus there were dozens of people who would not go into city hall because they were undocumented and feared police harassment, but fed messages to Repeal Coalition members, who conveyed them to the city council. Plus there were two hundred people outside still protesting—oh, and a lone Tea Partier holding a sign. (Yes, one person. Remind me, why are liberals so afraid of this group?)
With drums from the protest audible in the chamber, waves of people spoke out against 1070 and in favor of filing an injunction against it, while just five Tea Partiers spoke against the injunction. Each of the five went to great lengths to emphasize that they only opposed illegal immigration—but in the next breath they warned of “invasions” and a “virtual border that’s moving northward.” They weren’t racist for supporting SB 1070, they insisted—but then they talked about how “these people” commit crimes. Their logic was simple and crude: Undocumented = criminal = Mexican = all Latinos.
They knew they were out-organized, and they were furious. One elderly gentleman, who earlier had tried to get me kicked out of the council chamber for handing out our speaking suggestions, waved the scrap of paper in front of the council and accused the Repeal Coalition of telling people what to say. “Am I right about this?” he turned and asked the crowd. “No!” it roared back. He sat down and left the meeting shortly.
Many of those who spoke against 1070 deeply impressed the council and the crowd. One man openly admitted he was undocumented. A Latina whose family has lived in Flagstaff since the 1890s told the Tea Partiers, “You think this law won’t affect you? You’re right; it won’t—because you’re white. You bet it’s going to affect me and my family, and we’ve lived here for four generations!” A white guy in a tie mocked the racial profiling within the law by saying “I’m not a bigot, but I look like one, don’t I?” Roars of laughter.
In the most powerful testimony of the night, a woman from the Navajo Nation told the council how this law would inevitably harass and profile indigenous people. Angrily she said, “I never had to carry my C.D.I.B. [Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood] and now I do. You all [white people] are our guests in this land. And this is how we are repaid. I’m going to be stopped because of this law, and I’m from a First Nation.” She left the podium in tears, and to thunderous applause.
The Tea Partiers began filing out in defeat midway through the meeting. As they did, Latinos who were waiting outside filled their seats. By the time the council actually voted on the injunction, there wasn’t a tea bag in sight. The symbolism of a grassroots movement devoted to oppression being replaced, one by one, by another grassroots movement devoted to freedom, smelled as sweet as creosote after a desert rain.
Four and a half hours into the meeting, three things struck me. First, the legal struggle against 1070 is driven by the grassroots struggle. I realized this as one councilperson, Scott Overton, admitted that he wanted to wait to see what other cities were going to do first before approving an injunction, but “the community pushed hard.” He then proceeded to vote for it. Then, the most conservative member of the council (and a candidate for mayor in an election that’s just three weeks away) voted for the injunction, too—even though minutes earlier he had said he would abstain! From his rambling comments it was clear that he did not like the injunction and probably liked the spirit of SB 1070, but he didn’t have the guts to go against 200 people pressuring him to do the right thing.
Politicians and lawyers may be in front of the television cameras, but they are not in the lead in the battle against SB 1070. Rather, they are being pushed into action by a teeming movement of undocumented people, their loved ones, and their allies. To be sure, the city council’s decision required some courageous initiative by Councilwoman Coral Evans. But this issue is hot because people at the grassroots are hot, and politicians feel they have to do something. In figuring out what happens next in the struggle, then, the question is not, “Will the legal battle win?” but “Will the grassroots be able to push the legal struggle even further?”
Second, the Tea Party and their ilk can only be defeated by out-organizing them. Tea Partiers are wrong, but they’re not stupid. Their minds won’t be changed by showing them “the facts” about immigration, for ideology always trumps truth. Rather than dismissing them as ignorant, you have to beat them at the grassroots. In Flagstaff, a grassroots group led by working-class Latinos out-organized the mighty Tea Party. They left early, and at 10:00 p.m. we celebrated a unanimous decision. Even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t save them.
Third, this evil law can be defeated. Flagstaff is a sign. New polls show that support among Arizonans for the law has declined to just over fifty percent, with those numbers going down to forty-five percent of those under thirty-five. Enthusiasm for 1070 is dampening because the grassroots is firing up.
We can win this.
In 1963, Malcolm X wrote about a Black revolution coming from the grassroots, one in which Black people were determined to control their destiny rather than be controlled by whites. Similarly, a new movement is emerging from the grassroots in Arizona, one that rejects the weak tea of “liberty” proposed by nativist Tea Parties. This new Arizona demands a new kind of liberty called for by a global economy: the freedom to live, love, and work wherever one pleases, and the freedom of ordinary people to have a say in those affairs that affect their daily lives.
The day after our victory, a hundred high school and middle school (!) students walked out of school in protest against 1070 and marched to city hall. Repeal Coalition members met them there and exchanged phone numbers. That evening, another mass meeting organized by the Repeal Coalition voted to keep the pressure on with more protests and more resolutions for city hall to pass.
So what happens when you hold a tea party and a bunch of “illegals” show up? You can see the new Arizona in sight, and it’s as beautiful as a Sonoran sunset.
Joel Olson is a member of the Repeal Coalition. He has lived in Arizona for twenty-five years.