Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reflecting on what the immigrant movement might learn from the "6A" statement

We were watching the local news a few years ago. A cameraperson for a local news broadcast was following Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio on a tour through his notoriously awful jail facility. It was being broadcast live and Joe was his usual cocky self.

Typical of the kind of uncritical platform that the media regularly gives Joe, he was armed with the mic himself. Obviously thrilled at his chance to speak directly, unfiltered, through the media, and filling the role himself that would normally be played by a reporter, he approached an inmate. "You enjoying your stay here?" he asked, chortling in that characteristic farm animal way he has.

"No, sir," replied the inmate, looking down and stating the obvious.

"You got anything you want to say?" grunted the sheriff to the inmate, sticking out the microphone again.

"Yeah. I do," said the prisoner, a visible rage welling up inside him. "I just want to say that every night before I go to sleep I pray that in the morning you'll wake up, go out to get your morning paper and get hit by a truck."

Infuriated, Arpaio called over the guards. "Put this wiseguy in solitary! Bread and water!"

The prisoner was hustled off in a rush, but even though we couldn't see his face anymore, we could tell he was smiling. And so were we.

I bring up this actual event because recently a controversial article, authored by "Anonymous Arizona Anarchist Advocates for the Assassination of Arpaio" ("6A") has been making the rounds. The article defends the deployment of the infamous "ASSASSINATE ARPAIO" banner which was on quite obvious and bold display at the January 16th march to the jail.

A lot can be said about the banner, and the writers do indeed say a lot themselves. The article is well-written and entertaining, and really doesn't require any additional defense, nor does it seem to ask for one. So I won't give one. I'm more interested in the questions it raises.

I do have some quibbles with it, however, which I'd like to get out of the way before I consider what the statement means for the movement. For instance, I can see the point of the authors making up quotes from silly pop stars. However, in the current climate, I think such fiction-writing comes across less as satire than is perhaps intended when it is extended to organizers like Sal Reza. I understand that a lot of people, myself included, legitimately feel like Sal has acted badly and said some ridiculous things ("crazies", denouncing us as unwelcome outsiders, etc). But while we envision a different sort of movement, we don't want to destroy it. I think its fine to take self-important movement leaders down a notch, but it's important not to inadvertently feed fears of police meddling.

It would be a shame if peoples' legitimate, if overblown, fears about COINTELPRO operations provided the excuse to avoid responding to the very real concerns raised in the DO@ bloc statement. To the extent this is the case, the utilization of satire must be considered very carefully. Likewise, given Arpaio's history of manufacturing his own threats, one should be careful about playing into his hands as well. Joe loves to appear persecuted. I say this not to chastise but rather to caution. I really liked the Zack de la Rocha quote, though.

That said, I started off my article with the interview I saw on TV in order to illustrate a point: even though the authors have taken what seems like an extreme position (and despite the fact that they themselves equivocate a bit on what they meant by it), this is only so when viewed from certain angles. From the perspective of the one prisoner above, for instance, it's unlikely that such a proposition seemed so to him.

Indeed popular rage at Arpaio seethes in this state, especially amongst the poor and working class of all races, the overwhelming victims of Joe's attacks. If the banner shocked, you should hear some of the things people say when the camera's not running. More than once I have had someone I just met, from middle aged women in line at the grocery store to young kids in graffiti crews, say much worse about "America's Toughest Sheriff ()". At the bottom, where we know better than to waste our time voting for our prison warden, Joe is truly hated.

It's only in the bourgeois press and in the polite middle classes that Arpaio is seen as anything other than the class enemy, plain and simple. The downtown yuppies look down on him and mock him as a doddering old coot, much like they mocked that murderer Bush the Younger.

But those of us at the bottom of the class hierarchy know the truth of it. Joe locks up our friends all the time. In a sprawling city without decent public transit, our friends wind up in his tents in the 120 degree summers for DUI. While in there they accumulate vast debts that they struggle to pay on minimum wage. They lose their apartments and their cars. Our friends get nabbed by his deputies for being brown and wind up back in Mexico, even though they left there when they were six months old. Or they get snatched at a protest for daring to form the radical wing of the movement. It's all the same. Amongst our class, we don't mince words when it comes to Arpaio. We know the enemy when we see him and we call him such.

I write this next part not to lecture the authors of the piece, but to make my position clear. I am not a believer in propaganda of the deed as a political strategy. I have said before and I continue to believe that, if the movement is going to focus exclusively on Joe (and this is an important question to ask), then the best possible outcome is for a direct action movement engaging in creative resistance to force him to resign and flee the state in humiliation and defeat. This is the kind of outcome that builds movements and sets them off towards their next challenge. As the "6A" authors themselves point out in their piece, whack Arpaio and there's just another asshole waiting in the wings to replace him. To prevent that, you have to change the politics of Maricopa County. I'll come back to this point.

I don't need to give a history of the Galleani circle to illustrate this point, I hope. Propaganda of the deed might be exciting and sometimes even inspiring, but it is far more often an indication of the defeat of a movement than of success, a symptom of weakness rather than strength. We all get a laugh from history that Spanish anarchist exiles tried to bomb General Franco from the air after WWII. But we also forget that they were "Spanish exiles" for a reason. Franco had won. Also, however popular such sentiments may be, it's important not to write checks that cannot be cashed. This isn't a call to conservatism, but a reminder that, even when we speak obvious truths, escalation does not serve a movement that isn't prepared to deal with the consequences.

As with any rule, there are exceptions (we all cheered when Hitler got it in Inglourious Basterds), but we should be careful when making them. And in general these exceptions come during revolutionary situations when contradictions explode onto the stage. I do not believe we are yet in this kind of situation. And trust me, if we were, and Arpaio had to deal with a real popular movement from below, he'd be running with his tail between his legs back to Berlusconi's Italy for protection. Creating and supporting such a movement is our task as revolutionaries.

Still, I think there is something important that we can learn from the "6A" statement that would be useful for the movement in general. The crux of the argument, which I like, is that despite all our efforts, Arpaio is returned to office time and time again with large majorities backing him. Statewide this political reality is reflected in the supermajorities backing every anti-immigrant initiative on the ballot. He has continued to use the immigrant movement as a foil to bolster his approval among reactionary whites in the county and to solidify them in their obstructionist position to working class unity.

As it is currently oriented, the movement plays into this trap time and time again. The sheriff may seem a useful dupe, but one wonders, as the statement asks us, what all the marches and sign-holding has accomplished, after all, if all it does is make Arpaio stronger? To say nothing of whether it attacks the overall statewide system of white supremacy (which must be our larger goal). Even if we are not advocating political murder (and I am not), is there a point at which it is all right to ask this broader question? If it's only taboo that keeps us from thinking critically about the kind of movement we have, then by all means, let's blaspheme!

But when we ask critical questions about the movement we are answered with silence. The strategy that it is following is the strategy that it will continue to follow, despite (or perhaps because of) its failure. And that's just that. So we are told.

But despite the righteous outrage and condemnation that "6A"'s bold statement has elicited in some quarters, doesn't organizing in opposition to one politician who is essentially immune from electoral challenge, and therefore from popular pressure, eventually beg the very question that so-called responsible moderates now decry? I mean, in some sense, isn't the "6A" statement "baked into the cake" as the movement is now oriented? I think so, and that's a problem. But it's not a problem that anarchists created, even if it was anarchists who made the banner. And it isn't a prisoner problem either, just because a prisoner spoke out on TV. It's all our problem as long as we continue down this path.

This is why we at PCWC, along with our other comrades, advocate for a reorientation of the movement away from focusing on Sheriff Arpaio and towards a broader view. One that incorporates more voices and links more struggles. One that demands free movement and freedom from dislocation. One that challenges the checkpoints. One that challenges the Border Patrol on the rez. One that fights the cameras on the freeways and streets. One that opposes the dislocations of Native peoples for resource extraction. One that sees all the police agencies as complicit in the attack on people of color specifically and the poor and working class generally. One that fights Wackenhut's prisons, the FEMA camps and the tents at the same time. We want a movement that is not afraid to ask questions and, importantly, unafraid to make connections.

One part of that organizing was the DO@ bloc, which was itself a manifestation of much deeper work at coming together with comrades that in many ways stand outside the movement as it now exists but who deserve a respected place in it. For us white anarchists in particular, we have another particular charge that goes beyond critical solidarity with regards to the movements with which we engage. We have a special obligation to reach out and explain to white people why they ought to reconsider their reactionary position with regard to the immigrant movement. And we have a political burden to create situations that reveal this hypocrisy and put white people in political predicaments where they must choose a side. Which is it? Solidarity or reaction? Getting white people to answer that question, that's our task and one that PCWC takes very seriously. Think about contradictions in the white working class and push on them. See what happens.

It speaks volumes that, despite the extensive popular hatred of Joe, the immigrant movement has not been able to tap into it. Indeed, it appears afraid of it. With the exception of the first few popular explosions and megamarchas, a popular movement against Arpaio and the broader attack on movement has not manifested. In fact, the risings in the early days were much more broadly aimed than at one measly county cop. So what happened? Where did everybody go, and why? Should we be afraid of these questions, too?

Since those early days, many people with legitimate reason to oppose him politically from the poor and working class have not joined in. In essence, the migrant movement has failed to mobilize a popular movement against Arpaio. Also, white anarchists have failed to mobilize white people. We mobilize ourselves just fine, no doubt. But too often anarchists are so disgusted with the white communities that we left or opposed, that we are loathe to engage with them. The problem is, this only adds to the climate that leaves the migrant movement reaching out now to hypocritical politicians, aging pop stars and President-Saviors to rescue it. Lacking a popular movement, it doesn't matter how Arpaio leaves the scene, someone else just as bad will surely take his place, even if they are less ostentatious in how they do it.

Likewise, the movement is unable to create a dialog that goes beyond just one person to challenge the entrenched system of white supremacy throughout the state. It is afraid to call out local police forces, preferring to maintain the illusion that one cop shop is worse than the others, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. Organizers work with Phoenix PD even as the agency moves steadily ahead towards turning every beat cop into an ICE agent. The same with Chandler. Look at where the alliance with Mesa's Gascón got everybody.

The politicians that flirt with the movement are likewise useless. One thinks it's okay to dislocate Indigenous peoples from their homes for the freeway, and to shift all the pollution and resulting health issues that come with it onto the reservation. And another denounces anti-Arpaio protesters with his mouth while taking money from the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association with his hands. And on and on.

This is a failed strategy.

And while a bullet in this situation doesn't solve it either, we ought to be thinking hard about what would. Internally, in my opinion, this process begins with addressing the concerns of the DO@ bloc. On that basis we can heal wounds and build a unified movement that can discuss strategy and tactics in a democratic fashion. With regards to the anarchist movement, it must be on us to create the kind of situations and manifestations that bring white people around to the importance of solidarity. From there we can start to think about victory.

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