Lessons from Arizona: Direct Action Organizing from 1999 to Now

Lessons from Arizona: Direct Action Organizing from 1999 to Now

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

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.

Born and raised in Oakland, CA, Jesse Strauss is an independent
journalist. His articles have been featured on Truthout, Common Dreams,
CounterPunch, Consortium News, and other sources. Reach him at jstrauss

Searching for Justice as Oakland Streets Turn Lawless

Searching for Justice as Oakland Streets Turn Lawless

by Jesse Strauss

check out yesterday’s radio show to get a blow by blow account of what happened on the streets of Oakland the night of the verdict


As the Oakland community begins to understand the meaning of Johannes Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter verdict, the streets exploded angrily last night.

Mehserle is the former BART cop who killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s morning, 2009. As Grant was lying face down on a BART platform, Mehserle stood up, grabbed his firearm, aimed down, and shot Grant. Mehserle’s next action was to handcuff the wounded 22 year old father before calling for any kind of medical assistance. Oscar Grant was killed that morning, but the Oakland community will never forget his name.

Yesterday at 4pm, an LA courthouse announced the jury’s verdict, that Mehserle killed Grant with “criminal negligence”, receiving the charge of involuntary manslaughter. From what I understand at the time of this writing, the verdict could mean that Oscar Grant’s killer will serve anywhere from two to fourteen years in jail.

It’s clear, though, that the Oakland community does not consider the conviction strong enough. Speaker after speaker at the 6pm rally in downtown Oakland told the crowd of at least a thousand that they were disappointed with the verdict. Many folks spoke out about their feelings in different ways, but no one seemed comfortable with what had happened.

At the same time, no one seemed uncomfortable by the huge amount of support given by the larger Bay Area. What many sources have called “outside agitators”, many people in the streets last night recognized as community support.

While we think about the mainstream narrative of “outsiders”, it seems important to keep in mind that Oscar Grant himself lived in Hayward, and Mehserle was not an Oakland cop, but a BART officer, which meant his jurisdiction spanned across a range of cities throughout the Bay Area. Oakland simply and justifiably is at the center of this action.

The inside agitators, which are mostly Oaklanders (although I did see some people from Berkeley, Hayward and Vallejo), clearly played a strong role in the community response to the verdict. As the formal rally came to a close at 8pm as organizers were ordered to shut it down by the city, it became clear that the police forces, whether Oakland cops, California Highway Patrol, or others from nearby cities, were excited and ready to use their new training and equipment on the people who came out to voice their opinions.

Once the rally ended, at least two people had already been arrested, but it was fully unclear to any of us witnessing the events what prompted those arrests. Only a few minutes later, I was told that a block away a Footlocker’s windows were broken and its contents ransacked by community members. When I arrived there, I watched some young people grab shoes in the store and run out before two others blocked the entrance, telling others that justice for Oscar Grant does not look like what we were seeing.

But what does justice look like?

As I walked away from Footlocker, I saw freshly sprayed graffiti covering windows and businesses with statements like “Justice 4 Oscar Grant” and “Off The Pigs”. Continuing down the street, I saw protesters running in any direction they could find to avoid confrontations with police, who were slowly marching up Broadway Avenue in Downtown Oakland.

Then the shattering started. Much of the next few hours became a blur. I watched numerous windows at the downtown Oakland Sears fall to the ground as someone lit small fireworks nearby. Sirens echoed in every direction and police announced that the gatherings were illegal and we would be arrested and possibly “removed by force which could cause serious bodily injury”. Minutes later, the wind carried a draft of pepper spray toward me as I walked by three large flaming dumpsters in the middle of Telegraph Avenue.

In the midst of all the action I searched for some kind of organization—some kind of unified goal or idea of justice. The community is angry, and there is no correct platform to address that anger. For those who are sure that Mehserle should be charged with a crime stronger than involuntary manslaughter, the legal approach did not work.

While leadership and organization seemed to have flown out the window, it did seem that the rebellions were much more calculated than those just after Grant’s murder, as most of the broken windows were concentrated at corporate giants like Footlocker and Starbucks. The strongest piece of organization I witnessed in Oakland’s streets last night were the groups of people preventing attacks on local businesses.

The police came in as a close second. They didn’t seem to know how to deal with what was going on, but they would march in formation down a street, only to watch new trash cans light up and windows shatter another block down. While they may have been organized within their small army, officers had no idea how to deal with the realities of last night. In fact, it became clear to me that they made Oakland’s streets very unsafe.

As I walked from Telegraph to Broadway on Grand Avenue, first watching a Starbucks window broken and then that of a sushi restaurant, I realized the night was getting out of hand for everyone. Trying to stay connected with some sort of normality and step away from the crazy streets, I called a friend. As soon as my conversation was over I looked down at my phone to hang up. Then a hand came out of nowhere, perhaps over my shoulder, and grabbed the phone. I tried to hold onto it until I was startled and disoriented by a fist slamming into my eye and I let the phone disappear as blood began dripping from just above my left eyelid.

But where were the police to respond to a robbery and assault in the middle of a major intersection in downtown Oakland? They were clearly not making it safe for me to be in that space, and it is still unclear who or what they made it safe for. The person or people who have the phone and gave me a black eye and some possible medical bills were not crazy and violent Oaklanders that need to be policed to help or save people like me. These were people who took advantage of a lawless space that our law enforcement officers created themselves.

The night started with people moving and becoming angry (or angrier) because police declared a peaceful gathering in the street to be illegal. Windows were broken because people were angry and moving quickly down the streets with nowhere to voice their anger safely.

Hours later, I’m lying in bed with a black eye and a gash above my eyelid. I can only imagine how my night would have ended if the police hadn’t declared the peaceful gathering illegal and created a sense of lawlessness in Oakland’s streets.

This is not justice for Oscar Grant. But what is? From the Grant’s murder to those of us who were endangered by police last night, law enforcement needs to be held accountable to the communities they serve. That at least seems like a good starting point.


Born and raised in Oakland, Jesse Strauss is a producer for Flashpoints (www.flashpoints.net) on Pacifica Radio. His articles have been published on Truthout, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Consortium News, and other sources. Reach him at jstrauss (at) riseup.net.

check out yesterday’s radio show to get a blow by blow account of what happened on the streets of Oakland the night of the verdict



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