by Joel Olson
One by one we go around the room. We state our name and why we are here at this meeting, seeking the repeal of SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant laws. “I want to keep my family together.” “I believe in human dignity.” “I’m afraid my family will be broken up.” “I believe in freedom for all people.” “I want a resolution to this problem.” “I want a new world.”
This is what my Wednesday nights have been like since the passage of SB 1070 in April: for three hours I sit in a hot, sweaty room at the local Catholic church in Flagstaff, Arizona, with anywhere from 25 to 50 adults plus a gaggle of little kids. It’s a meeting of the Repeal Coalition, an all-volunteer, grassroots organization that is struggling for the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in Arizona. Three-quarters or more of the participants are Latino. About that many are undocumented or related to someone who is. Women outnumber men, and they participate more. The discussion is noisy and animated, and mostly in Spanish, with people doing the best they can to translate into English or vice-versa. Often just the gist gets translated. (Someone says a joke in Spanish and three-quarters of the room erupts in laughter and the rest of us smile sheepishly, then someone says a joke in English and it goes the other way.) But somehow we feel like part of the same group. The kids in the adjacent room tear through the paper and crayons and cheap toys until someone pops in a video. By 8:30 p.m., exhausted, we clap it out, clean up, socialize, and take care of the little things we couldn’t get to in the formal meeting. Then we all go home, do the work we volunteered to do, and come back fighting the next Wednesday.
This is what democracy looks like.
In Arizona right now, this is the lull before the storm. SB 1070 is scheduled to become law on July 29. If you don’t know, SB 1070 is the notorious anti-immigrant law that makes it a state crime to be undocumented, requires everyone in the state to carry ID (“Your papers, please!”), makes it a crime to give an undocumented person a ride in your car or a meal in your home, and practically mandates racial profiling.
On July 29, if the police have “reasonable suspicion” that you are undocumented, you will be ripped from your family and thrown in jail.
On July 29, if you give a ride in your car or allow into your home a person you know is undocumented, you are “recklessly disregarding” that person’s legal status and can be arrested for “harboring” an “illegal alien.”
On July 29, if you get stopped by the cops and you don’t have identification on you, this will count as “reasonable suspicion” that you may be in the country illegally, and you are subject to arrest, no matter where you are from.
If this sounds to you like the makings of a police state, well, it does to me, too.
When Governor Jan Brewer signed 1070 into law at the end of April, Arizonans took to the streets in the tens of thousands. We organized protests, held community forums, and spoke out wherever we could: the state capitol, trailer parks in Phoenix, Flagstaff City Hall, the borders of the Tohono O’odham nation, neighborhoods in South Tucson.
After the crowds died down, the lawyers stepped in. To date at least six lawsuits have been filed that seek to prevent SB 1070 from going into effect, including one by the Obama administration.
Undocumented folks and their loved ones are holding their breath, praying that the lawsuits will succeed. But many of them aren’t putting all of their eggs in that basket. They know that ultimately, only grassroots action will defeat this evil law.
Which brings us to the meetings.
Americans generally don’t know how to run a meeting, or participate in one. We can vote, we can speechify, and we can scream at each other, but we rarely debate constructively and in a way that encourages the participation of all. Our political system simply isn’t set up for that. Instead, what typically happens is that the people vote once a year or so and the politicians do the work—with the help of lobbyists, bureaucrats, judges, and lawyers, lots of lawyers. It’s actually a really limited form of democracy, when you think about it.
But the meetings of the Repeal Coalition are entirely different. They are utterly ordinary, yet incredible. The great Marxist revolutionary C.L.R. James once wrote a pamphlet about direct democracy called “Every Cook Can Govern.” He would have been inspired to see these cooks, cleaners, servers, chamber maids, college students, linen service workers, teachers, maintenance workers, warehouse clerks, and cashiers practice democracy in Arizona. And the Coalition doesn’t just go through the motions of democracy like most American voters; we debate politics. We come together, discuss the right thing to do, develop strategy, make decisions, and carry them out. People (mostly) raise their hand to speak and (mostly) listen patiently to others. And we do all of this in two languages!
The political theorist Hannah Arendt claims that ordinary people directly participating in politics is literally a miracle. Miracles, she argues, are the spontaneous creation of something new. This, she argues, is precisely what people acting in the public sphere do: they create a new beginning, a new community, a new political possibility, something that has never existed before.
That’s what happens every Wednesday night in Phoenix and Flagstaff. At one recent meeting, for example, Flagstaff Repeal discusses the finer points of a resolution we’ve written that demands the repeal of all anti-immigrant legislation in the state of Arizona. The resolution, which we hope the city council will pass, calls for the city to proclaim itself a safe haven for all people, whether they have papers or not. We discuss and then approve the resolution unanimously, to great applause. We then move on to developing strategy for how to get the city council to pass it. From there we discuss the situation of some undocumented workers who have been unjustly treated and fired by the local Hampton Inn, and then to plans for a protest and march against SB 1070 in downtown Flagstaff for the coming Saturday. The facilitator (who is doubling as translator) gets us through the agenda so that we can end by 8:30. We all marvel at what a great job she did—and it was her first time. The meeting ends by “clapping it out,” or a slow, disorganized clap that increases in speed and synchronization, leading to a crescendo of group unity and power until it bursts into individual applause again, reminding us of how the individual and the collective are interdependent.
These meetings are inspiring, boring, disciplined, way off track, frustrating, empowering, intimidating, and awesome—often at the same time. Like I said, this is what democracy looks like.
The Repeal Coalition’s slogan is “Fight for the freedom to live, love, and work wherever you please.” But this slogan is meaningless without another: “All people deserve the right to have an equal say in those affairs that affect their daily lives.” Democracy is not voting for elites every four years while quietly fuming at the tyranny of your boss for 40 hours a week (more if you’re undocumented). It’s the ability of all people to have a say in those affairs that affect their daily life. At our meetings, we seek to live out this principle of radical democracy. It’s built into the very heart of the Repeal Coalition: the weekly meeting.
The Repeal Coalition has been meeting every week since March 2008. For the first few months there were between a dozen and 20 people. Sometimes there were four of us, staring at each other, wondering what the hell to do next. That was the case last January, for example. Thanks to an inside source, we knew the notorious bill that would soon be named SB 1070 was coming, even before it was made public. We talked about how we needed to build a movement to fight it. But there were just four of us. What the hell could we do?
And then in April the world discovered SB 1070, and we went from six people to 40 to 60 in two weeks (plus 20 kids—I spent several meetings doing childcare in the adjacent room, occasionally sticking my head in the meeting room to hear what was going on). The primary language went from English to Spanish. The college students, who were formerly a majority in the group, became outnumbered by servers and laundry workers.
Since then we’ve had at least 25 people at every meeting. We’re busy, but we’re nervous. July 29 approaches. People don’t know yet how they are going to keep their families together. They are scared to drive, so they aren’t even sure how they’ll get to work, how they’ll get their kids to school, how they’ll shop for groceries. Down in Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio calls July 29 the “magic day” when he can truly begin to sweep the streets clean of brown people.
Another political theorist, Carl Schmitt, argues that the real miracle in politics is what he calls “the exception.” This is when a ruler declares an “extreme emergency” and suspends the rule of law. SB 1070 isn’t quite a miracle in this respect, because it is the law, even if it does suspend liberty and decency. Regardless, July 29 is Arpaio’s miracle.
In the face of this, Repeal keeps meeting, planning, fighting, and conjuring our own miracle.
The question in Arizona right now, as July 29 approaches, is which miracle will win out, the miracle of grassroots democracy or the “miracle” of unrestrained state power; the miracle of a new Arizona, in which ordinary people—with “papers” or without—control the affairs that affect their daily lives, or of the old Arizona, in which nativist politicians and business interests determine how the rest of us live.
I’m not sure which Arizona will win. But I’m damn sure that I’m not going to leave it to the lawyers. I’ll see you at the next meeting.
Joel Olson is a member of the Repeal Coalition, which meets every Wednesday night. The Coalition can be reached at www.repealcoalition.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.