Youth and the Two Futures of Arizona

Joel Olson
Northern Arizona University

As spring heats into summer in the desert, two Arizonas fight for supremacy. One, lodged in power in the Arizona State Capitol, drafts anti-immigrant and “fiscally responsible” bills with glee. It is old, it is white, it is dour and narrow. The other protests these bills from outside the capitol walls. It is young, it is largely brown, it is hopeful but it is angry, and it aims to clash with the old Arizona. On Thursday it earned its first victory.

Youth protest at the Arizona State Capitol. Photo: Joel Olson.

On Wednesday, one hundred youth from six weeks old to drinking age marched on the Capitol to protest a rash of anti-immigrant bills that, if passed, would have made Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 look like an act of charity. These five bills challenged the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship and would have required every member of official society—from nurses to teachers to school secretaries to doctors to employers—to check a person’s immigration status before healing or educating or hiring them.

The youngest walked in front, dressed up in costumes that represented what they want to be when they grow up. High school and college students followed them. And so the next generation of doctors, baseball players, construction workers, and firefighters descended on the capitol. They chanted “Our Freedom! Our Future!” and sang the civil rights standard, “This Little Light of Mine.” One 30-foot banner had hundreds of kids’ handprints on it along with written messages to the legislature. Another, carried by middle school students, read “Russell Pearce: Why Do You Hate AZ Youth?”

When they arrived at the capitol they sang, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” This classic Sunday school song has probably never been sung with such bite, for in singing to the legislature that Jesus loves the children of the world, they suggested that many Arizona legislators don’t. The chants and songs—which could be heard from inside the capitol building—had to prick the hearts of the “Christian conservatives” debating at that very moment how many millions to cut from the public schools and children’s health care.

The Arizona state legislature is firmly controlled by Republicans who represent white working and middle class constituents, including small businessmen and retirees, from suburbs and small towns like Mesa, Gilbert, Fountain Hills, Snowflake, and Lake Havasu City. These white nativist cranks are determined to scapegoat immigrants for the state’s deep fiscal crisis (Arizona is about $3.8 billion in the red) despite the fact that every reputable study shows that immigrants—documented or not—are a net gain to a state’s economy.

Herein lies the secret of Arizona’s nutty nativism: it is the outer shell of an intensive effort by elites to “reduce government” through deep cuts in public education, Medicaid, welfare, and the universities—while actually expanding the power of the state through border militarization and turning police officers, teachers, principals, nurses, and doctors into immigration agents.

Like the anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona is the front line of a conservative attack on the welfare state. The plan: First, blame the recession on “illegals” and public school teachers—but not Wall Street barons. Second, use the fiscal crisis in state budgets to justify deep cuts in public services as a “necessary measure.” Third, tell the public, “Everyone must make sacrifices.” Fourth, (and in direct contradiction to #3), cut business taxes deeply in order to “spur investment.” Fifth, use the predictable loss of tax revenue to justify more extensive cuts in public services, which justifies further tax breaks for the rich, which… well, you see the pattern. In other countries this process would be led by the World Bank and would be called “structural adjustment.” Here it comes from whites of modest means at Tea Party rallies underwritten by the Koch brothers. The whole thing looks particularly absurd in Arizona because our politicians are more obnoxious than elsewhere, but it’s a nationwide affliction.

But this working class nightmare is being challenged by Arizona’s youth, who have a very different vision of the future. Of the three great populist responses to the Great Recession so far (the Tea Party and Wisconsin being the other two), the immigrant rights movement most suggests a new world. The Tea Party, of course, suggests not the future but the past, with its laissez-faire policies turned into populist slogans through white resentment.

The massive demonstrations in defense of public sector workers in Wisconsin have been among the most inspiring in the U.S. in a decade, but it is hard to tell whether Wisconsin signals the birth of a new movement or is the last gasp of the old. Its energized defense of the working class and its occasional militancy inspire fresh hope, but its defense of a long-declining union movement and its overwhelming whiteness make it seem like a struggle from an earlier era.

By contrast, the movement against nativism feels new. Though it began before the recession, with major nationwide demonstrations in May 2006, since 2008 it has had to dig in for the long haul in response to a rash of anti-immigrant bills from Arizona to Georgia. And in doing so, it has not followed the typical paths of movement building by the left. Completely absent at Wednesday’s youth march, for example, were unions, civil rights organizations, and representatives from nonprofits. This protest was entirely from the grassroots, and young people were in the vanguard.

Undocumented parents—who have risked everything for a better life for their families by coming to the U.S.—are understandably hesitant to enter the political fray, although many do. But their children, many of them U.S. citizens and most of them fairly Americanized, are ready to fight. They fear losing their parents and other relatives to ICE raids—as many already have. They are determined to not let it happen anymore. One middle school student at the protest, who has already had two uncles deported, defiantly told to the crowd through the bullhorn, “I don’t want to lose more of my family than I already have.”

Their documented friends are ready to fight, too. In Arizona, if you go to a public school, chances are you have undocumented classmates. As a result, many young people here, including whites, have friends who are undocumented. Empathy for their situation cuts across race and class among these youth. In one speech, a third-grader said, “My friends are endangered and threatened and I don’t want them to go to Mexico and live on the streets.”

So it’s not surprising that youth are taking the lead in the struggle against the nativist teabaggers. High school students throughout Phoenix walked out last week to protest the anti-immigrant bills, many of them marching many miles from their schools to the state capitol. Thousands walked out last spring (video) in the fight against SB 1070, too. And that’s why they marched on the Capitol on Wednesday.

Immediately after the march hit the local news, grouches in the blogosphere complained that the kids were being “used” by grownups in the immigrant rights movement, and that they should be studying or playing rather than being “exposed” to politics at this young age. As if young folks don’t know what’s happening to them! As if they can’t engage in politics and do their homework and watch cartoons, too! (They are a multi-tasking generation, after all.) Such criticism pretends to express concern for children, but they are really just further attempts to patronize and depoliticize young folks, and keep them from shaping their own future.

And then, the youth of Arizona tasted their first victory. The very next day after the march, the legislature fiercely debated all five bills, and all five of them went down in defeat! The Republicans who joined Democrats in voting against them said they were moved by arguments from corporate Arizona that these bills were “bad for business” and a “distraction” to the budget crisis. But kids know they were heard, too. Insiders at the Capitol tell me that the place was abuzz with the youth protest, and that it had them worried: if they are already protesting now, before the bill goes to the governor for her signature, what will they do in the next few weeks? The aura of ungovernability hung in the air. Further, the media has started to discuss how anti-immigrant laws are affecting Arizona’s youth and how nativist legislation is connected to budget cuts. Many are starting to openly wonder how such bills and laws will affect Arizona’s future. They act like they have come up with these questions on their own, but kids know better.

This is only one battle in the fight for Arizona. The nativists, led by Senate President Russell Pearce, will counterattack soon. But the other Arizona, the Arizona that exists in the eyes of its youth, will be ready for that, too.

Arizona’s young folks know how nativism affects their future. And they are not standing for it. While the state legislature seeks to hurl Arizona into a laissez-faire dystopia where brown people are neither seen nor heard, Arizona’s youth are struggling for a new future, one in which they and their families are free to live, to love, and to work wherever they please. This is their state. As a six-year-old told a reporter at the march, “We are here to fight for freedom.”

Joel Olson is a member of the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots organization seeking the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in Arizona that helped organize the youth event.

Selected media coverage of the march:

Video from NBC Channel 12, Phoenix.

Arizona Republic's lead columnist, E.J. Montini:

"Republican-controlled Legislature wages war on children". (Note how Montini is using the Repeal Coalition's language of ‘hating children’ throughout.)

Arizona State University's daily, The State Press:

"Children Dress in Costume at Capitol Protest"

"Demonstrators Protest Immigration Bills"

"Children Join Repeal Coalition Protest at Arizona State Capital"

Ronald Reagan in Wisconsin

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

February 6 marked the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, whom Republicans and conservatives continue to worship as a political god. GOP presidential candidates may differ slightly on this or that substantive issue, but they can all be reliably counted on to campaign as legitimate heirs to Reagan and his alleged revolution. Invoking the 40th president has become a rhetorical rite of passage for “serious” politicians on the right.Reagan worship, not surprisingly, suffers from serious historical amnesia and denial. Prior to George W. Bush and his gratuitous war in Iraq, Reagan could arguably be considered America’s greatest Constitutional criminal, far surpassing the impressive likes of Richard Nixon, for example. Reagan, recall, presided over the Iran and Contra affairs, so brilliantly documented by Lawrence Walsh, who doggedly pursued the Reagan felons despite—or rather because of—their utter contempt for the law. Stymied by Congressional Democrats, the Reagan junta financed and conducted its own private foreign policy by, among other things, selling weapons to Iran and raising money from oil producing states. The Sultan of Brunei alone reportedly contributed tens of millions of dollars to this rogue government pursuing anti-democratic policies throughout Central America. Reagan and his co-conspirators considered and placed themselves above the law.
To circumvent Congress’s power of the purse destroys the very notion of constitutional government. George Shultz knew how serious these crimes were. He feared that if word leaked out, they would all be hanged. Nothing of the sort happened, of course, and George H.W. Bush later pardoned, in a craven act of political self-interest, a handful of the conspirators. Iran-Contra was not Reagan’s only Constitutional offense. He also orchestrated his own little war, declaring a crisis in Grenada so he could deploy American forces triumphantly in the aftermath of foreign policy disaster in Lebanon.
Reagan’s penchant for domestic lawlessness and imperial violence finds no place in America’s official public memory. As the excessive mourning surrounding his death revealed, he is a figure to be canonized. Reagan’s much vaunted legacy is currently on display in Wisconsin (and other states) where public employees are being scapegoated by Republicans for the country’s economic problems. Reagan famously pronounced that government is not a solution to problems; government is the problem. Twenty-first century Republicans have aggravated Reagan’s legacy by making government workers the problem.Thus Wisconsin’s newly elected governor, Scott Walker, declares a fiscal crisis, passes new tax cuts anyway, and uses the occasion to denounce and attack not only the economic well-being of public employees but their social and political rights as well, more specifically their collective bargaining rights. Walker insists that the country is split in two between “haves” and “have-nots”: public employees and the rest of us, that is, taxpayers. Republicans claim that public employees have to share the collective pain of the country, that is, they have to do their part just like people in the private sector. This is an ugly ethos that passes with little or no comment.Accused of doing well (too well), public sector workers must be made to suffer like the rest of us (but not those benefitting from the Bush era tax giveaways, they don’t count here). Public employees who successfully bargain for wages, salaries, pensions, and health care (routinely making sacrifices for them) are thought to have gamed the system, while bankers and financiers on Wall Street who prosper through financial malfeasance not only keep their ill-gotten gains, they return to business as usual, thereby creating new dangers, while the country they nearly destroyed pays for the results. In the GOP narrative, if you work for Goldman Sachs or other financial players, of if you find yourself among the very wealthiest of Americans, you have somehow “earned” what you’ve got and should be able to keep it, including tax-payer provided bonuses. If you’re a public employee, you can’t be part of the American success story. The private sector represents the production of wealth and social creativity; the public sector is merely parasitical upon it. The National Security state was the one exception to the rule.This free market idolatry found its consummate spokesperson in Ronald Reagan. Republicans, then, not only enjoy a visceral hatred of public sector workers and unions; the people who work for the state and join unions don’t know they’re proper place in the order of things (who remembers PATCO, the air traffic controllers union Reagan gratuitously destroyed his first year in office, firing some 11,000 members and banning them from federal work for life?). The Republican agenda is about money and power, about who has a right to profit and rule, about who should be benefitting from and running things. The GOP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate and financial interests and the latter know what’s best for America.
GOP leaders, accordingly, demand that taxes be lowered and business regulation rolled back—ostensibly to reinvigorate the economy. The disconnection between rhetoric and reality is extraordinary. Do they really believe what they say? Or is this just thinly-veiled ideological fanaticism indifferent to consequences? Either way, it’s Reaganism, a struggle of memory and forgetting. Tax cutting and deregulation, paired with huge increases in military spending, didn’t work in the 1980s. They led to brutal redistributions of wealth and income, ruinous deficits, and a climate of corporate recklessness and criminality. George Bush perfected this philosophy in his eight years of disastrous rule. And it is a philosophy. Crippling deficits coupled with reduced revenues starves the state and forces huge, “necessary” cuts. Put differently: Republican dogma did “work,” after all. No wonder John Boehner’s House of Representatives, newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida, and Republican state legislatures throughout the country promise more of the same. The specter of catastrophic deficits is a Republican dream comes true. They can now demand cuts in much needed spending, especially targeting public works projects (New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Florida); they threaten mass layoffs and the militarization of the public work force (Wisconsin); they long to destroy the rights of the people to organize and bargain (more and more states); they will dispatch armed state troopers to round up dissident Democratic legislators (Wisconsin again) who refuse to cooperate; and they would shut down the Federal government if Democrats do not capitulate to their class warfare.At long last, however, there are broader signs of resistance. Obama’s jejune calls for bipartisanship notwithstanding, democratic forces may finally have realized they have enemies who pursue politics as a bloody undertaking. It’s also worth remembering that PATCO endorsed Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, which did not spare it when he became president and the union declared a strike in 1981 over conditions that were universally recognized as intolerable. Republicans may support striking workers elsewhere, as they did with Solidarity in Poland during the Cold War, but larger geo-political considerations rather than actual concern for working and middle-class people drive such decisions, which never extends to fellow citizens at home. Scott Walker proudly announces he is not “fazed” by the outrage he has engendered. So, by all means, let us remember Ronald Reagan, the “cheerful” patriot of American exceptionalism who embodies a social and political philosophy constituted by a vicious underside. His ressentiment-laden revolution is alive and well, as Wisconsin demonstrates, and needs to be opposed with at least as much vigor as it is prosecuted.