Filled to overflowing with individuals of all races, Phoenix's First Institutional Baptist Church played host recently to a slew of religious and political leaders gathered to denounce state Senator Russell Pearce's pro-racial profiling bill, SB 1070, signed into law Friday by Governor Jan Brewer.
Present as guest of honor was Illinois Congressman and pro-immigration advocate Luis Gutierrez, who had just finished an impassioned address on the lawn of the state Capitol before a crowd of thousands. Nearby were Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, state Representative Clovis Campbell, and Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.
The Reverend Warren H. Stewart Sr. delivered a sermon filled with the distinctive cadences of African-American oratory, punctuated with the occasional "Yes, sir!" from congregants.
I was taken with Stewart's references to civil rights struggles past. He preached that the spirits of Martin Luther King Jr., César Chávez, and Medgar Evers were looking down on us, telling us that there was a fight ahead and to: "Go do what needs to be done."
Stewart praised the nine Hispanic college students who last week had put themselves on the front lines by chaining themselves to the doors of the Capitol building before being arrested for disorderly conduct and shipped off to the Fourth Avenue Jail.
Though the students had been as solemn as statues as they awaited arrest, when authorities placed them in a room to themselves, handcuffed, sitting in anticipation of their getting walked to a black sheriff's bus for transport, they sang "We Shall Overcome," the hymn of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Their willingness to be arrested in battling a law that will make them second-class citizens in Arizona clearly inspired Stewart to remark, "Some of us may have to go to jail before it's all over."
Indeed, the obvious wrongness of a state law that allows local police to use a combination of "race, color, or national origin," in the language of the legislation, to determine "reasonable suspicion" that a person may be in the United States unlawfully has sparked outrage across America.
President Barack Obama has called the law "misguided" and ordered the U.S. Justice Department to "closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation."
The Reverend Al Sharpton has said that he will bring "freedom walkers" to Arizona to bait cops into asking for their papers, an echo of the freedom riders who tested the desegregation of interstate busing in the 1960s. Sharpton warned that there will be more civil disobedience and has indicated that he's willing to be arrested if need be.
There are also calls for a national boycott, and massive demonstrations are planned for Cinco de Mayo in Arizona and across the nation.
The actions of the Capitol Nine immediately sparked a walkout at many Phoenix-area high schools in sympathy. These students flooded the Capitol, forcing Brewer to sign the bill in a "secure location" near her office.
So when Pastor Stewart concluded his remarks with an ironic note of gratitude toward the architects of SB 1070, I grasped what he meant.
He called upon the Biblical story of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph had been made governor of Egypt, after he'd been sold into slavery by his own brothers. Joseph's brothers worried about revenge.
But according to Stewart, Joseph told them, "Do not be afraid, even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good in order to preserve a great people.'"
Then Stewart thanked the Arizona Legislature for passing the bill and Brewer for signing it.
"You may have intended it to do harm, to thousands of people of color and Latino descent," he preached, "but God intended it for good for his great people.
"Thank you, Arizona, for SB 1070 . . . you have awakened the 21st-century civil rights movement!"
Stewart's words were not empty rhetoric.
At the various demonstrations over the past week, many have repeated the cliché that SB 1070 has awakened the "sleeping giant" of the Hispanic people and their allies.
Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva has called repeatedly for a boycott of Arizona until the law is overturned. Already, some are heeding his call.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association immediately decided to move its fall 2010 conference to another state after Brewer okayed the bill.
San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is calling for that city to join the boycott. And groups of independent truckers have said they will not ferry goods through the state.
If these moves seem tentative and come from unsurprising quarters, keep in mind that Grijalva only called for the boycott last week. If the effort grows, it will hurt Arizona's economy.
Congressman Gutierrez reminded demonstrators at the Capitol, when he spoke there before attending the church service, that César Chávez's legendary boycott of table grapes started slow before building to a crescendo that eventually forced grape producers to sign union contracts with field hands.
"Do you remember when César Chávez was alone in California working for the agricultural workers?" asked Gutierrez, rhetorically. "He was alone. But then in Arizona they didn't buy grapes anymore. And then in Chicago [and many other cities] — they didn't buy grapes anymore.
"Arizona, it is time for you to march into the 21st century, or you too will be boycotted across this nation."
You can bet Arizonans will not like pariah treatment, but residents will have little choice, just as they had little choice when the state was targeted for a boycott over its repeated rejection of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
When Arizona voters rejected a measure to create a paid MLK Day in 1990, the National Football League moved the site of the 1993 Super Bowl from Tempe to Pasadena, California, costing the state an estimated $150 million in lost revenue.
Conventions scheduled for Arizona were canceled, adding another $190 million-plus in losses. Arizona was ridiculed by TV shows like In Living Color, and mocked by the rap group Public Enemy in the song "By the Time I Get To Arizona."
Similarly, the state has again become synonymous with racism and backwardness.
Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers razzed Arizona on the show after the law passed, cracking that every time someone says, "Show me your papers," Adolf Hitler's family gets a residual check.
"Heads up, Arizona, that's fascism," he said on
SNL's "Weekend Update." "I know, it's a dry fascism, but it's still fascism."
Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report also took aim, quipping that the new law allowed cops to Taser anyone using the word "chipotle."
He added, in an observation that would be funny if it were not true, "It's like [civil libertarians] are saying that harassing Latinos with racial profiling is an inevitable side effect of this law. It's not. It's the entire point of this law."
The piling on continues nationwide, with everyone from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joining in.
Add to this, the impact of Arizona's other wingnuttiness, like the Legislature's allowing concealed handguns to be carried without a permit, and the state House's passage of a "birther" bill that would require President Obama to present his birth certificate to get on the 2012 ballot.
No wonder many in this state are getting calls from relatives and friends elsewhere wondering, "What the hell is the matter with Arizona?"
Even Senator John McCain's daughter Meghan McCain, now a New Yorker, felt the necessity to defend her home state in an article for The Daily Beast Web site, titled, "Hate the Law, Not Arizonans."
McCain's offspring would normally get credit for being a chip off the old "maverick" for opposing the law. That is, if her pop were not so busy supporting the racist legislation in an effort to shore up his right flank against challenger and extremist ex-radio blowhard J.D. Hayworth.
Russell Pearce, sponsor of the odious new law — crafted with the help of the nativist Federation for American Immigration Reform and with the assistance of nativist legal beagle Kris Kobach — has claimed there will be no economic impact on the state because of SB 1070.
To the contrary, the new law is a colossal, unfunded mandate to cities and counties to stretch their limited resources. With the law, will come additional jail, administrative, training, and legal costs.
Police agencies and municipalities will have to defend themselves against the inevitable civil rights lawsuits, and against lawsuits from local nitwits empowered by a segment of the law inviting them to sue if they feel an agency is not chasing after brown folk full force.
The tax base will get socked as illegal immigrants, legal residents, and citizens of Hispanic descent take a hike because they don't want to be profiled. Also, when people don't choose to come to the Grand Canyon State to live, it will continue the "bust" phase of Arizona's perennial boom-bust cycle.
And now a boycott is called for . . .
Interestingly, Pastor Stewart spearheaded the campaign to make MLK Day a reality. After damage to the state's economy and its reputation, MLK Day was finally approved by Arizona voters in 1992. Though not in time to get the 1993 Super Bowl back. Or all of the moolah it would've added to the state's coffers.
As Stewart reminded his Sunday crowd, Arizonans didn't approve MLK day because it was "moral," they approved it because the state lost nearly "half a billion dollars."
Neither César Chávez's grape boycott nor the Arizona boycott over MLK Day bore fruit immediately. Both took years before victory.
A challenge in state and federal courts to SB 1070 could bring about quicker results.
As numerous legal experts have noted, the law appears unconstitutional on several grounds. The
Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution mandates that federal law trumps state statute. Courts long have interpreted the Constitution's grant that Congress has power over "naturalization" to mean the feds have undisputed authority to regulate immigration.
Further, racial profiling is illegal under the federal Constitution — it violates the Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure, as well as the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.
Groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union have announced their interest in challenging the law.
For now, Alessandra Soler Meetz of the Arizona ACLU is tight-lipped on the legal strategy the organization might employ. But the ACLU could seek an injunction delaying the law's implementation — set to occur 90 days after the state legislative session ends. Or the organization could await a test case, with a victim of racial profiling as a client.
The Obama administration could seek to enjoin the law.
At the rally at the Capitol on Sunday, Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor called on the U.S. Justice Department to do this. He held back his support for economic sanctions on Arizona, in hopes that either the feds or others might be successful in stopping the legislation.
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At the same rally, Congressman Gutierrez blasted President Obama for laying the ground for SB 1070, by continuing the 287(g) program, which allows local cops like Sheriff Joe Arpaio's goons to act as immigration agents while under federal contract.
Gutierrez noted that either Obama or the Justice Department could, with "the stroke of a pen," issue an order or opinion stating that local police do not posses an "inherent authority" to enforce immigration statutes on their own.
As such legal machinations play themselves out, SB 1070 has inadvertently created a coalition of individuals and organizations determined to overthrow it and the political cabal that's brought it into being. The movement is highly motivated, filled with righteous indignation.
Without SB 1070, this movement would not have coalesced around the issue. And for that, Pastor Stewart was right to offer thanks.