Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Civil Rights Movement's Lessons for Anti-Arpaio March

"Not since the days of Bull Connor has this country seen a public official abuse his authority in order to terrorize and intimidate communities based on the color of their skin," states a call for the big January 16th march in Phoenix against Arpaio. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is often compared to Bull Connor, the police official in Birmingham who fought civil rights activists with attack dogs, and strong water hoses back in the 1960's. He acted above the law, although some could argue that his actions were not contrary to the general orientation of the rule of law then or even today. He was more blatant about abusing protesters and disregarding federal law than most law enforcement officials, which is why Arpaio is compared to him.

During the civil rights movement, there were no marches against Bull Connor, but there were efforts to produce situations in which he would show the world what he was willing to do to fight integration. The horrible treatment of marchers drew the attention of the nation and encouraged John F. Kennedy to initiate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To some, the Civil Rights Act was a victory, and the story somewhat ends there. This perspective makes it seem that Bull Connor was an important catalyst and therefore target (although he wasn't quite a target in the way Arpaio is today). Yet if this was the case, why do stories that focus on a wider black liberation movement rather than focus on aspects of what's called the civil rights movement that often center on the federal government's benevolence or Martin Luther King's heroism not really mention Bull Connor at all?

If one were to argue that strategically it makes sense to go after Arpaio because of the significance of Bull Connor's role in getting the Civil Rights Act passed, I would say, Arpaio is our big villain, but just as Bull Connor was but a piece of the entire picture, Arpaio should not be the central focus of the current movement. According to The numbers don’t match Arpaio’s hype, Arpaio, despite having spent much more money and time and having wider jurisdiction and more media attention, arrested less people than city police departments in the county. The many politicians and those who elected them, the police, and ICE- all those who are enemies to undocumented people- make it clear that Arpaio is but one figure, and that opposition to racist attitudes must address something bigger than a politician, in many ways a symbol, no matter how monstrous. Yet the focus on Arpaio remains, locally and nationally.

Shall we just have marches against Arpaio until we get a crappy Immigration Reform bill? And maybe even get rid of Arpaio? Will that solve all the problems of migrants and others caught up in the arrests, checkpoints, and militarization of the border? We can bet that these things, especially the militarization of the border, will still exist after reform. There will still be "illegal" people, and a permanent underclass.

A call to action for the March in Phoenix on January 16th says, "It is time, just like Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement took the streets of Montgomery Alabama that at that time was the epicenter of hate; we must do the same in Phoenix." The movement for immigrants’ rights is often compared with the civil rights movement, but we must ask whether the civil rights movement was even effective.

First, the civil rights/black liberation movement involved a lot of amazing work and the organizing by many people who are rarely credited for their contributions. Often their ideas about what should come of the movement are not recognized today. What is recognized are the agreeable aspects which the white mainstream chose to co-opt. It is not that the movement did not succeed exactly, but we are made to think that racism no longer exists because of the it. Yet we have the largest prison populations in the world and the relative majority of those in prison are non-white, and many are in for non-violent offenses. This is only one example of the way that racism has been disguised, yet still exists today.

Despite the fact that many people have been empowered by the amazing work by organizers of the civil rights and power movements, what happened is that while elements of the movement(s) were co-opted, others were effectively destroyed through the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Briefly, COINTELPRO sought to eradicate dissidence, to destroy Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, and other radicals, and was, with the help of local police and the criminalization of people, the downfall of many liberation movements.

It is difficult to use the civil rights movement as a model for a movement of today for these reasons (and many others), primarily because what most people know of it is what they are encouraged to know, their education about history filtered for the purposes of maintaining the status quo.

If we were to see the Civil Rights Act as a success of the civil rights movement, it would make sense for us to seek something comparable from the immigrants' rights movement. Another call to action for the January 16th march says, "Join us and march against the injustices and separation of families caused by the 287(g) and Joe Arpaio. We will be demanding that the Obama administration take direct action on the issues affecting our communities." Some calls for the march, seemingly mostly or solely coming from the National Day Laborer Network, call for comprehensive immigration reform.

Something many people don't know about are two riders added to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, one which outlawed crossing state lines (which includes using a telephone or sending mail across state lines) with intent to "incite a riot" and the other making it a federal crime to "obstruct law enforcement officers or firemen doing their lawful duty in connection with a civil disorder which obstructs a federally-protected function". Both of these have been used against Black Panthers, the American Indian movement, and various other radicals. This is yet another example of the way the federal government criminalizes dissent, as well as an example of how laws that claim to solve problems (such as discrimination) actually perpetuate those problems by undermining the people's ability to rebel, and by contributing to the filling of the prisons. Oh, and get this: the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that was meant to prohibit violence against black people exempted from prosecution any law enforcement officers, member of the National Guard and Armed Forces who are engaging in suppressing a riot or civil disturbance.

The integrity of the Civil Rights Bills aside, it is important to make the point that the federal government was involved in crimes against the people (such as through COINTELPRO), and watched as racists such as the KKK and southern police committed crimes against black people. One example is that the federal government was providing information about the Freedom Riders to the Birmingham police, who in turn was providing that information to the KKK. The Klan used that information to attack civil rights activists, such as when the freedom riders arrived at a bus terminal and the KKK beat them while the police waited to show up until most of the Klan members had left. The police were actually providing a lot of information about local civil rights activities, but who they were providing it to was especially interesting. The information was being given to a KKK member who was actually an FBI agent who had infiltrated the Klan. So the FBI knew all along that the information was being provided to the KKK, and they also knew the details of the various acts of violence the Klan and the police were perpetrating against the black population and civil rights activists. Keep in mind that Birmingham was being called "Bombingham" because of all the bombings at the time. Yet neither the FBI, nor the federal government in general, did anything to stop the horrible violence that was occurring even though they did have the ability to do so (Source). This is the government that benevolently gave us the Civil Rights bills?

So it must be asked, were the Civil Rights laws a success? I would concede that laws do shape people's attitudes, that outlawing racial discrimination shaped the white consciousness. Yet, on the flip side of this, laws and law enforcement have played a stronger role in justifying racist attitudes. I would argue that the criminalization of people, which did not start with the civil rights movement, but at that time was intentionally shifted towards appearing unbiased, is the newer face of racism. Certainly things have changed due to the civil rights movement, but we must ask what was it that really changed and what has not changed? As mentioned above, dissent has been criminalized, as well as has been poverty, drug use, etc. The police enforce the color line by partaking in harassment, brutality, and arrests of people of color. Especially relevant to this discussion is that movement across borders has been limited and criminalized, constructing a whole mass of people as criminals. From this perspective, the rule of law is perfectly congruent with racism. So Connor and Arpaio are not aberrations except in the way that they flaunt their penchant for abusing people. While not as blatantly racist as Connor was, Arpaio can still terrorize migrants under the power of the law.

Another question to be asked: Were the Civil Rights Bills written because of a moral imperative of the federal government, perhaps with a push from leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.? Or were they an attempt to quash dissent? After all, protests and riots were a major concern. What better way to deal with it than to throw the people a bone while you further criminalize rioting?

Malcolm X said, "You’ll get freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom; then you’ll get it... when you stay radical long enough and get enough people to be like you, you’ll get your freedom." Additionally, a couple months after the big March on Washington, Malcolm X described in a speech how the March was co-opted by the federal government; that originally the marchers were talking about how they were going to march on the government buildings and bring them to a halt, and even that they would lay down on the runways of the airports and stop planes from landing. This frightened the government so much, that got Martin Luther King Jr and others together to undermine the organizing for these activities by making it a passive march instead. "They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn't make; and then told them to get out town by sundown." Yes, the government has its ways to undermine true dissent, and obviously it's not always through force. Reform is used to undermine revolution.

This is why I believe that if anything with a positive façade is to come out of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, it is out of fear of the power of the people. After all, no moral imperative is preventing the federal government from running all the detention centers, from militarizing the border, from being involved in the corrupt drug war, etc. (On the flip side, I believe the federal government is also afraid of the racists who scapegoat migrants and other people of color for their problems but also are angry with the government for collaborating with businesses to make money off of cheap labor). Even if you believe that new opportunities come with Obama in power, the fact remains: the rule of law is intimately tied to racism. History may not repeat itself, but there are many lessons to be learned.

It is also worth mentioning that Malcolm X's story should be considered when movement leaders invite cops to meetings, when activists police the behavior of the people during protests, and when they try to control the message.

To conclude, Arpaio mustn't be the focus for the movement, and neither should reform. Knowing that Arpaio, like Bull Connor, was elected time and again by a mass of white folks who feel that people of color are somehow a threat, and that the rule of law, with the participation of the federal government, is inextricably racist, we have much to do. We need to challenge white people on their racism and no longer legitimize the federal government or other law enforcement by comparing Arpaio the "Sadistic Man" to those whose acts of repression are simply less visible. We need resistance, no compromise on freedom. Lives are at stake. Freedom not reform.

This is all not to say you shouldn't attend actions like the march against Arpaio. In fact you should, and you should bring your message and your passion for freedom.

Further reading:
No Borders or Prison Walls: Beyond Immigrants' Rights to Ending Criminalization of All People of Color
and
Freedom, Not Reform: On the New CIR-ASAP bill

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