On Saturday, thousands marched through the heart of the fifth largest city in the United States - Phoenix, Arizona - to demand an end to the abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The crowd gathered at Steele Indian School Park in the morning to hear several speakers, musicians, religious and tribal leaders offer their thoughts and prayers before setting out south down Central Avenue towards downtown. The crowd steadily grew as the march advanced in the near-90 degree heat of the Arizona desert.
This latest exercise of 1st Amendment rights to assembly was in response to the escalation of anti-immigrant and anti-latino actions by Sheriff Arpaio since winning reelection in November 2008. The racial profiling has increased under his leadership and families continue to be separated by gestapo-like workplace & home raids that Arpaio claims are part of his oath to uphold state law. He also believes that it's his duty as sheriff to segregate and humiliate migrant workers, treating them like animals by electrifying the perimeter fence around their tent city detainment facility. This latest outrage is what motivated Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame to get involved and help lead the march on Saturday. Taking the bullhorn at the federal plaza downtown, he commented:
"By parading human beings shackled in chain gang stripes," said De la Rocha, "in a misguided effort to collectively humiliate and to terrorize an entire population, he reopened the wounds from which we all still suffer, by invoking the painful memories of slavery and segregation...by doing so, he has not only brought shame upon the state of Arizona, but is bringing shame upon the entire nation."
De la Rocha also saved some spank for Arizona's ex-governor.
"If Janet Napolitano seeks to perform her mission as head of the so-called Homeland Security Department," admonished De la Rocha, "she must realize the dangerous threshold that the 287(g) agreements have crossed. She must deal directly and quickly with the real threat to peace and security here in Arizona, by terminating the 287(g) agreement with Sheriff Arpaio's office and joining the courageous members of congress who have begun an investigation into his criminal behavior."
The reality of marches and rallies like this is that many of the participants are those who are directly affected by the policies being protested. You would think that signs that proclaim, "WE ARE HUMAN" would be unnecessary, but the fact is that immigration enforcement has been wielded with a strong helping of dehumanization and racism.
Protesters on Saturday were all examples of the nuance that is missing from the broken manner that law enforcement has carried out immigration enforcement. Hardliners like to pretend that it's okay to arrest, detain and deport anyone without papers, no questions asked; but for every migrant worker who is rounded up in a workplace raid, there is a family and story attached to them that is complicated enough to warrant more than a Kick them out! attitude.
One woman I spoke to was a middle school teacher in Phoenix who carried a sign that said, "I am the VOICE of my Students who fear for themselves & their families". It is solidarity like this that will ultimately bring about change.
And speaking of change, President Obama was on the mind and lips of many of the protesters. They want to know what he and Secretary Napolitano are going to do to end the nightmare that escalated after Congress failed to pass immigration reform and enforcement-only became the posture of government towards the immigrant community.
I don't think any one of the thousands who marched in downtown Phoenix were deluded to think that Sheriff Joe Arpaio would suddenly sprout a conscience and stop the terrorizing of latino neighborhoods due to the march. The community mobilization on Saturday was definitely aimed at Washington, D.C. There is an expectation that DHS Secretary Napolitano respond soon and decisively on the Arpaio issue. It will be an important measurement as to whether the Change™ slogan of the Obama campaign is something that extends to immigration.
Meanwhile, education is the key to helping the families and workers gathered to survive. It was encouraging to see a lot of signage and education happening regarding the 287g agreement that Sheriff Arpaio is exploiting to enforce immigration policy in Maricopa County. Organizers from various groups such as the National Day Labor Organizing Network, America's Voice, Somos America, ACLU and Puente Arizona were on hand passing out "Know Your Rights" materials and talking to participants about ways they can effectively lobby officials to stop the raids and get to work on reforming U.S. immigration law.
As a veteran of the 2006 human rights marches that were largely motivated from outrage at the now-defunct HR4437, this weekend's event in Phoenix seemed more evolved and assertive. There is a stronger sense of mobilization and commitment to engaging elected officials than before. Perhaps it's a reaction to seeing Obama getting elected, I have no idea, but I noticed that the cloud of fear that was always present in past immigration marches was more like scattered mist. There was plenty of dancing, chanting, marching and educating to allow the collective human spirit to shine it away.
The next step is making sure someone takes notice in the nation's capital. Visit SheriffJoeMustGo.com for more information on how to get involved.