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Direct Action Organizing From 1999 to Now

Lessons From Arizona

by JESSE STRAUSS

Arizona’s legislature passed the highly contested Senate Bill 1070 last April. The bill targets people who have crossed our southern border without documentation in a variety of ways. One example is that Arizona law enforcement officers, if following SB1070 as it was written, are required to obtain citizenship/legal residency information of anyone they come across who could have crossed the border without papers. Essentially, this rule requires officers to profile the people they see in daily interactions. As undocumented immigrants are deemed ‘illegal’ by Arizona’s power structure, the consequences of daily activities like shopping, taking kids to school or taking a stroll could result in the destruction of a livelihood or a family by arrest and deportation.

The passing of SB1070 occurred near the end of the eight month period from September 2009 through May 2010, when the bodies of 110 hopeful immigrants were recovered on the US side of the Arizona-Mexico border, many of which were completely unidentifiable by the time they were discovered. As a supposed method to combat non-legal border crossings, support for SB1070 spread quickly along southern states. Within a few weeks of SB1070’s approval, eleven other states readied themselves to create and implement copycat laws. News pundits jumped on the story and comfortably took their places in the hype of the “immigration debate” that appeals to most of their viewers, which is characterized by an Us versus Them approach.

What was broadcast over mainstream airwaves was a narrative that erased many complexities of immigration in favor of a simple and stereotypical polarizing approach. In those “immigration debates” it was rare to hear any mention of why people might be leaving their homes, their families, and their lives as they know them in order to be in the US. Also lacking was any clear definition of ‘immigration’ in a context of two countries whose borders changed barely 150 years ago with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which is why the question of who crossed the border and who the border crossed should be brought up as a major part of the conversation).

Nationalizing a Local Movement

Soon after SB1070’s passing, people took to the streets all around the country in protest (and in the case of some ‘Tea Party’ activists, support). Leilani Clark is a community activist in Tucson, and a member of a group now called the Capitol Nine. On April 20th, she and eight others chained themselves to the state capitol building in Phoenix. In her words, the group was “chained to this building just like our community is chained to this legislation.” In that respect, Clark approached the action through her responsibility as a community member. Action is all she could hope for to create change in such a racially divisive legal reform, and the group took action “as a massive call out to nonviolent civil disobedience, not only in Arizona but all across the country.”

Soon after, fourteen young people in Los Angeles were arrested for chaining themselves to an intersection in protest of SB1070. A few weeks later, House Bill 2281 passed in Arizona, banning Ethnic Studies. A group of fifteen Ethnic Studies students and alumni protested by occupying the State Building in Tucson.

These are just a few examples of the nonviolent actions taken before SB1070 was implemented on July 29th. What seems to fall through the cracks too often in discussions of the actions, however, is their level of coordination.

Movement Building Arizona Style

A few weeks ago, the Catalyst Project, a San Francisco organization focused around building a movement against racism especially in white communities, facilitated a report-back featuring activists who had been organizing against SB1070 in Arizona prior to July 29th. One segment of the report-back was an important analysis of the effectiveness of the movement building process in Arizona. For context’s sake, the process was contrasted with the organizing experience of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.

Organizing against the WTO turned into massive street rebellions, where activists clashed with police in virtually unprecedented ways, from enormous levels of chemical agents being dispersed (tear gas, pepper spray) to an incredible dedication by activists to continue fighting for their cause of Global Justice. From the streets of Seattle to Quebec to Miami and the beginnings of the World Social Forum process, the early 2000s seemed ready and ripe for a Global Justice revolution.

But Seattle’s organizing model was off. As described by the Catalyst project, Seattle’s model followed a flawed logic that setting a date and creating a public (and online) call to action with a specific list of targets would itself engage a critical mass of activists to build the movement for Global Justice. The point of those tactics were to be anonymous, uncoordinated and spontaneous. In other words perhaps, this could mean either that the approach was actually non-existant, or at best did not allow for accountability from within the movement. For Seattle, the magic was in the mystery of it all.

Eleven years later, the struggle for justice in Arizona created its own model. While small groups like the Capitol Nine attracted media attention and sent out a call to action around the country, community activists around the country were working on coordinated campaigns. While the headquarters of struggle found a base at Tona Tierra, a Phoenix community organization for eco- racial- and indigenous- rights, it was hard to go more than a few days in activist communities anywhere in the country without seeing mention of SB1070 or the struggle against it. At the US Social Forum for example, dozens of workshops and hundreds if not thousands of people focused their energy on creating strategy for immigration justice.

The Arizona model of organizing is articulated by direct action, but more for the purpose of publicity than for creating change through action. In Arizona, activists knocked on doors and facilitated community gatherings to discuss the expected impact of SB1070 for months leading up to the law’s implementation. Within the movement, there were known organizers and leaders who were able to take critical steps and actions with small groups as well as coordinate with other leaders and organizers who were transparent about their roles and intentions. Whereas the WTO protests focused on anonymity, Arizona organizing has allowed for accountability.

Additionally, there were many action plans with room for anyone to be involved, no matter their level of commitment or amount of time they could dedicate. This meant that while some folks were responsible for childcare or finding food donations, others were writing press releases or discussing tactics and effective actions. What is different from other models is that people were able to participate in a variety of ways and that space was created specifically for people to take action within the legal framework as well as for those who were dedicated to taking action outside of legal limitations.

What we saw in Arizona over the summer showed a new model of organizing, wherein cooperation between people who are dedicated to different tactics as well as space for accountability within the struggle takes center stage. As opposed to Seattle’s magic being in the mystery, the Catalyst Project described Arizona’s magic as in the coordination that allows for resistance through action, both coordinated and organic. Perhaps the organization that is embedded in the Arizona movement building strategy, however, proves that the magic is nonexistent. Instead, coordination takes priority, and all it needs is a niche within a movement of people ready to take on collective action for collective liberation.

JESSE STRAUSS is an independent journalist, born and raised in Oakland,
Reach him at jstrauss (at) riseup.net.