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