In 1999, following the massive demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, Betita Martinez shook things up with the simple question: “Why were most of the demonstrators white?”
After the state of Washington ran out of tear gas, after the echoes of bucket drums faded, after the teamsters and the “turtles” (environmentalists) parted ways, and global capital appeared momentarily derailed by a city full of barricades, her short article circulated listservs and email inboxes with penetrating questions for the debut showing of the newly born “anti-globalization movement.” Martinez highlighted the ways in which people of color did participate but asked us to reconcile the apparent divide. If “we are to make Seattle’s promise of a new, international movement against imperialist globalization come true,” she wrote, we must understand and learn from the low-level of participation from people of color.
In dry Arizona one decade later, on July 28, 2010, sweat evaporated before it hit the ground. Nervous eyes avoided one another and watched their clocks on the eve of the International Day of Non-Compliance, called for by the Puente Movement in Phoenix. At 4:10pm, wheels were set in motion and a countdown began. But five minutes later, the action was officially in question as the Phoenix skies filled with unusual clouds and burst open in a freak and sudden summer rainstorm.
Those in the know cursed under their breath as others danced outside enjoying a respite from the 110 degrees that caused the secret climbers to second-guess their plan of ascending a metal structure that’s been soaking up the sun all-day. The puddles dried. The skies cleared. The steel divinely cooled. A ladder lay against the base of a downtown crane. A construction worker yelled into his phone. And minutes later, four small dots—230 feet in the air—methodically emerged to unfurl a banner by dropping themselves into the sky live on Telemundo and NBC. The message was sent to the world, and to the signatories of Arizona’s recently-passed racial profiling law, as the stage was set for further resistance: “We Will Not Comply.”
In the first decade of the new millennium, we’ve been presented with a new image of defiance, a new face of what courageous direct action and democracy looks like. Indeed, in the past ten years, many took Martinez’s challenge seriously. Challenging White Supremacy Workshops emerged to train dozens of young primarily-white organizers in principled racial justice work. The Ruckus Society, after being called out at the Los Angeles Democratic National Convention in 2000, redefined itself from a culture ripe with white male chauvinism to an organization rooting in long-term relationship and capacity building with front line communities of color with direct action skillsets and sensibilities at the core.
Racial, gender, and economic justice formations have sought to internationalize their relationships through networks like Grassroots Global Justice and to consolidate their work through the US Social Forum process. A new world of low-wage and contingent-worker organizations, like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have broken open the labor movement and taken their rightful place at the table. The movement landscape we operate in today is far different, and more diverse, than a decade ago.
By the time anti-globalization mobilizations landed in Miami for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas summit in 2003, it considered itself the “global justice movement” and had the Miami Worker Center, Coalition for Immokalee Workers, Power U and others leading Root Cause marches addressing the links of global and domestic inequity.
The work was led by those who had come out of the fights of the early and mid-1990’s, like the proposition 187 battle in California or housing fights in New York. It was led by those who had recently arrived in the US after civil wars or displacement from their home countries, and from those who found no reason to celebrate the quincentenary anniversary of Columbus’ arrival on the continent. The efforts of all those who had turned their attention to the shovel-work of relationship and institution building was now bearing fruit on a mass scale.
“LLegaron Los Jornaleros (The Day Laborers Have Arrived).”
No one saw them coming. Most men looked away when the volunteer doctors, providing free blood tests to the workers while visiting street corner hiring sites, plunged needles into their taut arms resting on folding card tables. When one shouted “Migra!” as three white vans eased into the parking lot, tables toppled. Syringes hit the ground. Men who were patients seconds ago barreled past stunned medics from UCLA.
When Omar returned to the same spot the next day to look for work, he brought his guitar and sang in Spanish;
The raids are now in style / They search for us everywhere . All afternoon and morning / All they know how to say to us is / “We’re taking you to Tijuana” / But the people are amazing / They know everything there is to know / If they kick us out in the evening / We’ll be back first thing in the morning…
With that, the band Los Jornaleros del Norte was born, and alongside them, a national network of corner day laborer organizations now 42 members strong. Within five years, they would sing the same song to a throng of one million people in Los Angeles as part of the migrant rights movement that was reborn in 2006. Day laborers previously considered scabs by labor unions were now forming national partnerships and, with the emergence of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (whose members altered centuries of second-tier labor law with the passage of a Bill of Rights in 2010), represented a vibrant new hope for the continually stagnant US labor movement.
Arizona: A Testing Ground
While the nation debated immigration reform on a national level, a Sheriff who made his name with juvenile chain gangs and dressing his inmates in his decertified prison with pink underwear, teamed up with the federal government to enforce immigration on a local level. Sheriff Joseph Arpaio signed up for the federal 287(g) program and started equipping his deputies with the tools of law enforcement for a new America; ski masks and teddy bears. The ski masks to hide their identities in their pursuit of undocumented residents and the teddy bears to replace the parents the volunteer posses just stole away from children left behind.
Salvador Reza of [Tonatierra] in Phoenix would tell us that giants like these lose their power when lured into an alley fight. The new flagship federal program and the “toughest sheriff in America” became questionable when Arpaio rolled into a day laborer hiring site atop a tank to defend the property of a complaining furniture store owner. In that moment in 2007, the seed of 2010’s dilemma between criminalization and legalization, security and community, human rights and hate was sown.
The Puente Movement continued to fan the local flames, with Arpaio as a piñata to beat at the federal administration and the larger logic of enforcement. In February, 2009 they responded to the segregation of Arpaio’s jails by documentation status with what was billed as a mega-march of 8,000 that now pales in comparison to the 100,000 that marched through the same streets two years later. As the rest of country got turned on to the outrages passing for law in Arizona many asked about civil disobedience, direct action, and militant tactics. Reza received some criticism for what was perceived as his lack of militancy but he explained, “You can only be as radical as the conditions allow.” In January, 2010 the marches grew to 20,000; a prelude to what the state was about to see after the appointed Governor Jan Brewer signed Russell Pearce’s SB 1070 into law, codifying racial profiling, criminalizing day laborers, and prohibiting the housing or transportation of anyone undocumented in the state.
Nine students arrived at the Nahuacalli, an indigenous embassy of the Americas and hub for local organizing, to consult and pray before blocking the entrances to the Capitol building in protest. On the day of their action, they announced:
“We are chained to the state capital the way this legislation is chained to our people… We have done everything under the law to have our voices heard, only to be met with more hostile laws… That is why today we are doing a massive call out for civil disobedience because we are reclaiming our democracy… because this state capital is acting in a violent way and we will not continue to allow this to happen.”
Days later the 20,000 who marched on May 1st arrived at the Capital and, instead of hearing speakers from a platform, broke up into small groups to discuss and plan. The event signified the biggest departure from the legislative strategy governed by Washington DC, and gave birth to the Barrio Defense Committees that now populate each side of town with self-organized groups of residents exchanging skills and knowledge, developing detention preparedness plans, monitoring the police, and planning on-going actions.
Puente called for the Arizona Summer of Human Rights and invited the world to participate in the International Day of Non-Compliance on July 29th, the day that SB 1070 was to go into effect.
Today we announce the beginning of Arizona Human Rights Summer. Two days ago, we met veterans of the Mississippi Freedom Summer from 1964 who took the Civil Rights movement to a new level through their work. They encouraged us to carry on that legacy and pledged to participate deeply in the Arizona struggle.
In the coming months, we will peacefully escalate resistance… to strengthen a migrant rights movement from the bottom up, a movement uncompromisingly against the criminalization of our communities. We will make this summer a Human Rights summer everywhere. Wherever the Diamondbacks play, protest. Wherever there are new police/ICE collaborations, push back. Wherever Arizona companies do business, boycott. Wherever there is injustice, we must shut it down.
The summer of 2010 showed that the relationship-building and exchange Martinez had called for a decade earlier had occurred and paid off—and not just for the migrant rights movement. 18,000 people from grassroots movements gathered in Detroit for the second US Social Forum, consolidating the trend of transformative organizing, lifting up Detroit as a symbol of capital’s failure and communities’ solutions, and integrating themselves into an international movement led by the rising left in the Global South under the banner, “Another World is Possible.”
Young people declared themselves “Undocumented and Un-Afraid” and fearlessly challenged lawmakers to deport them in their acts of civil disobedience. The seeds of a shanty town in Miami called the Umoja Village sprouted into a national movement calledTake Back the Land with people refusing to leave their foreclosed homes or vowing to move back in to those the banks held on the market. Indigenous organizers from across the hemisphere attended the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth hosted by the Bolivian Government in Cochabamba. And on July 29th, joined notably by hundreds of Unitarian Universalists acting in solidarity, residents of Phoenix blocked the entrance to Sheriff Arpaio’s office and locked down his jail, effectively stopping the celebration raids he planned for SB 1070’s inaugural day.
One can look at the early decades of this twenty-first century as marked by the rise of the Right, the gutting of the social safety net, entrenchment of war, and the worsening of conditions. But a careful eye can see an entirely different picture. While conditions decline, movements’ strength is ascending. Institutions are maturing. And the challenges are mounting. As Nuh Washington, the former Black Panther who died in jail suggested: Victory isn’t necessarily the surrender of the enemy. It’s the knowledge that others will carry on. And as long as that’s going on, then there is no defeat for us. Which puts us in good shape, because we are the ones in need of help. To survive under these conditions makes us unique and can only lead to victory.”
If one looks at the past decade and incorporates the lessons from the big moments of fight back after Katrina in New Orleans, after the Jena 6 trials and the assassination of Oscar Grant, after the Siege on Gaza, the Dream Act, the struggles around health care and against the privatization of education, one can begin to imagine a brighter future. The ongoing work in Arizona, ten years beyond Seattle and the lessons Betita Martinez guided us towards, shows both areas to improve and exciting prospects. In all of this, as in the daily struggle to keep our homes and our hearts intact, one can see, as Arundhati Roypoints out: “Another world is not only possible; she is on her way.”