Mirrors and a Baffling News Day

What is the news today??  The Supreme Court rules that apparently racism is a thing of the past, while completely mis-defining tribal identity and threatening native sovereignty.   And then Senator Wendy Davis is currently filibustering in Texas to keep draconian abortion laws off the book, too, so that’s cool.

Meanwhile, I am reflecting on a protest I attended yesterday at the Suffolk Detention Center in Boston, opposing the massive deportations that happen each week, invisible to the eyes of many Americans, but brutally real to many others.

photo courtesy Massachusetts Jobs with Justice

We stood at the intersection of Mass Ave and I-93, 40 or 50 of us within sight of the Suffolk Detention Center, where detainees could see us through their barred windows. We waved and chanted, holding signs showing our solidarity and support; they waved back and banged on the windows, showing signs of their own: ICE 7 Years, and Thank You All.

As deportations continue by the thousands and the US sits on the brink of Immigration Reform, we need to be watching.  This country doesn’t make it easy for us to watch passively and see the full picture, so we have to look, and we have to listen. Carefully.

photo courtesy Massachusetts Jobs with Justice

We could see into the part of the detention center nearest the highway, but walking there, we passed walls of windows, which were mirrored on the outside.  We could not see in, but the people inside could see out.  If we listened, we could hear them banging on the glass, hidden from us.

A two-way mirror is a simple tool to hide an atrocity.  What would it look like, to drive by on the highway and see hundreds of faces peering through the glass, hands pressed between bars, mouthing words?  Would we ask who those people are?  Would we ask if they really need to be there?  So long as deportation and incarceration stays hidden, it’s easy to dismiss deportation and incarceration as something that doesn’t apply, so long as you follow the law.  “I don’t know the people detained,” you might say, “Aren’t they there for doing something wrong?”

Well who says it’s wrong?  The same people hiding them behind mirrored glass.

The people in the wrong are not who’s behind the mirror, but those who put the mirror there in the first place.

Not one more deportation! ¡Ni una deportación más!


A different lens on “Shooting by Agents Increase Border Tensions” (NYT 6-11-13)

If you read this article: Shootings by Agents Increase Border Tensions in the New York Times today, please also consider reading Remembering Jose Antonio: Day of the Dead in Nogales from the Border Wars blog.  While I appreciate the NYT’s exposure of fatal shootings at the Border, I was upset to see the NYT open its article by describing, “…rocks hurled from Mexico rained down on United States Border Patrol agents…”

I attended the vigil for Jose Antonio on Day of the Dead when I was in Arizona on the Border Studies Program.  I was able to see, as the Border Wars article describes, the wall on top of the cliff that separated Border Patrol from the site where Jose Antonio was killed.  Whether or not Jose Antonio was throwing rocks at BP agents at the time of his death is a contested detail, and if he was, it is difficult to picture how the rocks could have been “raining down” from Mexico given the geography of the site.

The NYT’s use of this type of description allows the Border Patrol to be seen as the victims of violent and agressive Mexicans.  Border Patrol likes to be seen this way.  This was apparent in my interactions with the Nogales sector of the Border Patrol, who handed us rocks and asked us, “Do you think this would do some damage? Do you think it would hurt?”  But Border Patrol is not the victim in this situation.  They are heavily armed, and their presence creates an environment of fear and intimidation on both sides of the Border.  I hope that this visibility in the New York Times helps end this sort of violence on the Border, but maybe the NYT could invest their time and energy into investigating why this sort of violence is allowed to happen, and why there hasn’t been a single criminal charge of a BP agent since 2010, rather than investing time and energy into crafting sentences that make it sound like the Border Patrol is just barely surviving a hailstorm of boulders.

Things to be paying attention to:

Ronald Reagan and Comprehensive Immigration Reform by Joe Nevins on NACLA

The TUSD Unitary Status/Desegregation Plan, and the Declaration of Intellectual Warriors

And also, TUSD proposed school closures.   This hits particularly close to home, as two of my fellow BSP-ers worked at one of the schools proposed to be closed, Manzo Elementary.  Manzo is a center of community in Barrio Hollywood; some families have attended Manzo for generations.

Video by Roxanne

Hey! That’s a resource in your toilet!

It was my turn to post on the Border Studies group blog this week, about our visit to Tucson native and rainwater harvester, Brad Lancaster. This post originally appeared on the BSP Fall ’12 blog.

A watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrological system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
— John Wesley Powell

Did you ever consider that we pee into clean drinking water? No, really, it’s clean and you can drink it. That’s why your cat does – it’s probably fresher than the water you leave out for her. Not only is this a common practice, in the United States we are mandated by law to turn clean water into toxic waste however many times a day nature calls us to, without considering what sort of impact this has on our community or environment.

Brad Lancaster is a Tucson native who has spent the past 20 years turning his property into a rainwater harvesting system and teaching others to do the same. We walked over to his house from our classroom last week, and came to think a little differently about borders.

Tucson is in a water crisis. The water table here has dropped 300 feet in the past 100 years, and continues to fall at an average rate of 3 feet per year. 44% of the energy the city of Tucson uses goes to pumping and filtering water. According to Brad, if Tucson used its rainwater as a resource instead of shooting it out of town through sewers and drains, this city in the desert would no longer have a water crisis, and we’d be more connected to the land and each other.

On Brad’s property, he uses very little or no city water; from what I gathered, the only energy used in the consumption of water is the energy used by his washing machine, which functions as a community laundromat. He gave us a tour of his composting toilet, his natural clay water filter, and his sunken garden beds, which collect water, rather than shed water like raised beds do. He led us in a “sun dance” to teach us how he developed passive heating and cooling systems for his house without blocking his neighbors’ winter sun. He also showed us the systems he’s created on his street to reduce flooding, by directing rain into roadside gardens of native plants. Brad’s house is a living laboratory of how Tucson could reimagine the way in which it uses the water that floods its streets every time it rains. “Turn a problem into a solution,” Brad says.

Brad took us on a virtual tour of neighborhoods in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA which have changed the way they interact with rainwater by narrowing streets and planting native plants that use the rainwater that falls into the soil that has replaced pavement. It is worth noting, however, that in these neighborhoods in Portland and Washington, innovative flood-control implementation has coincided with gentrification. I don’t personally know very much about these areas, but the question of access to the resources that allow these rainwater harvesting systems to be implemented and maintained was definitely in my head throughout Brad’s presentation. Most of the techniques he showed us rely more on community organizing, observation, and creative thinking than spending power. Still, “green living” is a buzzword these days, and when a neighborhood becomes more environmentally conscious, property values come up, and it becomes more difficult for low-income people to continue living there.

But perhaps if Brad’s methods were to become the norm, access wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Radical shifts in how we think about water are hard to imagine as reality, but around the world, as water becomes scarcer, people are beginning to think differently. Grey water harvesting is now legal in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, and the composting toilet in Brad’s yard is actually part of a trial to see if that specific composting system can become legal in Arizona.

Radical shifts in the way we think about water also require reimagining the way we think about borders. The way water rights work, especially in the southwest, where water is both scarce and in high demand, is a complicated maze of laws and dams and regulation, because state and international lines cut straight through watersheds; sometimes they are rivers themselves. Reimagine: borders drawn along watersheds, as John Powell said. If we imagine our communities as all of the people living within our watersheds, political borders fall away. Suddenly, we’re not only connected to Tucson, but we’re also connected to the greater Arizona community, and beyond, into Mexico. Water doesn’t stop at the border wall. If our borders come to be about the resources within an area whose bounds are defined by nature, we can start to think about working together to use those resources in a way that makes sense: harvesting the rain, only making use of what an aquifer can recharge on its own, and not peeing into drinking water, but rather into a pile of sawdust that can become compost for fruit trees.

SB 1070 In Effect

SB 1070 section 2(b) began to be enforced last week.  This is the part that the Supreme Court didn’t strike down; the one that allows local law enforcement to ask for people to show them documentation of their authorization to be in the US if they have “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the country without documentation.

Watch Jeff Biggers discuss 1070 on Democracy Now! here:


Sanitized Injustice

Prison relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.

— Angela Davis

Operation Streamline embodies this quotation.  I saw it in action today in a courtroom in Tucson.  Operation Streamline resulted from the creation of a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, in which people entering the US for the first time without documentation are charged in criminal court with a misdemeanor, and people entering for the second (or third or fourth) are charged with the felony of reentry after deportation.  The “Streamline” part of the Operation is that 70 people are tried and sentenced in the space of 2 hours, in the same courtroom, within days of being detained.  If that doesn’t sound constitutional to you, well, it doesn’t to me, either. Apparently the courts that have addressed the constitutional question have said effectively, “no harm, no foul, let Operation Streamline continue.”  The Supreme Court hasn’t said anything about it. Yet.

“Special proceedings” like Streamline happen in a large courtroom.  There is an eerie sterile nature to the courtroom.  Hand sanitizer pumps are all over the room, on every table.  The ceiling is brightly colored because someone thought that would be appropriate for a desert courtroom.  I sit in the back corner with the other Border Studiers. The people on trial that day sit in the gallery and in the jury box, the chains at their wrists and ankles clinking as they shift in their seats.  Between the vaulting ceilings and the muffled whisper of the Spanish/English interpreter speaking into her microphone, the judge’s words are lost. I can’t really hear him, though I do notice that he calls the defendants, “gentlemen and lady.” 

He calls groups of eight forwards. They are chained at the wrists and ankles, wearing the same clothes they were detained in, earphones for the Spanish interpretation dangling from their ears.

The process is fast: they say “sí, sí, no, no, culpable, no,” affirming their names, giving up their rights, admitting their guilt, and away they are led, through a door, but not before their attorneys pull the earphones out of their ears, because most can’t reach, thanks to the chains. Most are sentenced to time already served.  They will be deported.  Others are sentenced for any number of days: 30, 60, 100.  Afterwards, they’ll be deported.

At one point, the prosecutor speaks up.  “Your honor, this defendant has past charges; the state requests that he be sentenced to five days in a correctional facility.”  The judge grants the request. 

Why? Why bother? What does five days in a jail matter?  Or 100, for that matter?  What’s the mentality behind sentencing these people to prison or deportation for entering the country illegally?  These people aren’t coming to play a sneaky trick on the citizens of the United States. They’re walking through the desert for days to find jobs to feed their families, because it’s the only way to have some hope of survival, thanks to the US decimation of the Mexican economy. Incarceration doesn’t solve the problems of economic policies like NAFTA allowing the US to flood the Mexican market with subsidized corn, outcompeting Mexican farmers and leaving them with no means of income.

Operation Streamline meets no logical end to an actual problem.  Instead, what it does is feed the prisons – prisons owned by for-profit, public corporations, which depend on the US government paying them millions of dollars per month to hold inmates.  These corporations can build huge correctional facilities and then lobby for new legislation that fill their beds. The legislation is popular because it “fights crime” and builds the economy. The southwest economy is built on border militarization.  Prisons and law enforcement agencies and the US Marshall create jobs.  Jobs that rely on racist and dehumanizing operations like Streamline.

6 Hours

There aren’t many people who meet with Border Patrol agents in Nogales, Arizona and people preparing to migrate at a shelter in Altar, Sonora within the same 6-hour period.

And it’s hard to figure out what it means to be one of the few who has.

I saw a lot and I heard a lot in that period.  At the Border Patrol, I mostly heard them telling us that they were out there trying to stay alive.  They showed us the rocks that “rockers” had thrown at them, and asked us pointed questions: “Would you throw that at me?  Do you think that could do some damage?” And pointed to a picture of 14 Border Patrol apprehending 140 people trying to cross: “10 to 1, they outnumbered us.  Who do you think would win, if they decided to turn on us?  Think about that.”  The agents showed us all the guns they could bring in the field.  We got the chance to hold them.  They wanted us to be excited about getting the chance to shoot their “less than lethal weapons.”  They told us about all the drugs they apprehend.  They told us they had seen the effects of immigration “in their communities” but didn’t elaborate on what those effects were.  They wanted us to be scared of the people crossing the desert.

I think the tour was designed to make us leave there feeling psyched about the Border Patrol, and how awesome their guns were, protecting them from the migrants who were going to assault them at any chance they got (They actually said this – “Any chance they get to assault us, they do.”)  I left feeling shaken from being confronted with the grim reality that protecting a country that is “free” involves heavy militarization: M-16s, x-ray vision goggles, drones, huge detention facilities, and whatever else the Federal Government decides might be useful.

About ten minutes passed between leaving the Border Patrol and arriving at First at Kino Border Initiative, an organization for people recently deported, just on the other side of the border. We heard stories from two women there, each of whom was desperate to find a way into the United States: one, to be reunited with her family, the other, to escape from the husband she had been forced to marry.  The stories they told starkly contrasted against the Border Patrol’s narrative of migrants being violent and aggressive, and revealed a different truth of people wanting to get to the US in order to survive.

From Kino, we continued on to Altar, a hub for migration further south of the border, where people meet up with Coyotes to guide them North across the desert.  There we met men with a huge array of stories.  Some had tried ten or fifteen times to cross, trying to get North to find work, any work.  Others had been deported after putting down deep roots in the States, and were trying to get back.  They all wanted to contribute to their families in some way, whether it was by working to send money home, or to go back home and reunite with their loved ones.

It’s hard to figure out what it means to be one of the few who has met migrants in Altar and agents at the Border Patrol in a quarter of a day.  What do I do with this sort of perspective?  I write about it here, and I hope that you also see the major discrepancy between the narratives of the “dangerous illegal aliens” that pervade through out the US and the narratives of the actual people who are trying to live.  And then I continue to be here, and I continue to listen, and I continue to learn, and write and ask questions. I try and find the place where I fit in the powerful work for resistance happening in Tucson to secure a future where some day people will be able to live in community, on either side of the border, without fear.

First Glimpse of the Wall

I couldn’t help but think of the Truman Show when we crossed the US/Mexico Border in Nogales on Thursday.

I’ve seen the Truman Show exactly once, in seventh grade English class, I think as part of a unit on 1984.  The finer details of the movie escape me, but the concept of being in a manufactured lie of a world, oblivious to the world outside, stuck.

I don’t want to push this metaphor too far, because it’s certainly not a perfect parallel, but arriving at the US/Mexico border in Nogales felt like reaching the edge of a bubble that the “People In Charge” didn’t want me to find or know was there.  Because if more people could see this border town, with the border fence undulating along the hills, more people would surely be asking the question I asked, which was are you kidding me?

This wall, which isn’t a wall any more, because they replaced it with a 25-foot iron fence last year, makes it extremely hard to cross the border in the urban area of Nogales.  It is see-through, so the border patrol can more easily see what’s going on on the other side.  They are allowed to shoot through it.  To me, it seems like an instrument of violence, a roadblock for people who cannot survive on the Mexican side, pushing them out to the desert to attempt to cross, and quite possibly die.

It’s hard to wrap my head around, and to attempt to comprehend how we got here: to a place where a country which claims to promote freedom around the world has a fence around it.  It isn’t the first time I’ve wondered something like this, and I’m damn sure it won’t be the last.

Awe and Fear – An Introduction

I’m here! I made it to Tucson.  After a slight hiccup in which we had to deplane and replane a different plane in Minneapolis, I have arrived.

Last night, before we all crashed from travel exhaustion, we drove up to the Tucson Mountains to scramble up a field of rocks and watch the sky change and the clouds roll in as darkness settled over the desert.

I was not expecting to be as excited and exhilarated by the landscape here.  Imagining the harshness of the desert made me nervous.  I’m used to my relatively wet, relatively cold East Coast mountains which roll into each other and confuse my friends from Colorado who can’t figure out the difference between what we call a mountain and what we call a hill, and don’t think our mountains qualify as mountains anyway.  I’m used to feeling nested between mountains, contained by them.  Here, the mountains seem to punctuate the vast openness.  They jut up out of the flat plane, and when you go up to the top, you look down the other side at more vast openness.

I sat there, perched amidst red mountains and cacti, watching purple rainclouds meet pink sunset clouds, and then one of our teachers said, “Good thoughts to all those who are trying to cross the desert tonight.”

While preparing to come here, I had a difficult time with the paradox that kept presenting itself as people constantly told me about how beautiful it is here at the same time as I read about how many people die trying to get here.  I was particularly struck by that last night, as I found myself caught up in the joy and awe of seeing this landscape, while also trying to imagine what it must look like to embark across it on foot, without the shelter of an air conditioned building with a running tap to retreat to.

I think this is going to be a semester of paradoxes.  Let the grappling begin.