The Associated Press Flubs SB1070 Protester Story

I know, no one voted me the local press corps cop, but periodically, I feel the need to step into the breach and whack my fellow Fourth Estaters upside the head. Particularly when their errors mar a story I care deeply about.

Such is the case with an Associated Press news item on the recent sentencing of 13 of those who protested Senate Bill 1070 on July 29, 2010, outside Sheriff Joe Arpaio's infamous Fourth Avenue Jail.

Not only did the AP get it wrong, the error belittled the courageous acts of civil disobedience performed by those men and women.

On that hot Thursday in July, I was proud to be in the streets with them, and I witnessed firsthand the demonstrators' defiance of a law that has as its stated intent making "attrition through enforcement" Arizona's immigration policy. Essentially, those buzzwords translate into plain English as "drive the Latinos out."

The law officially went into effect July 29 of last year, and despite District Court Judge Susan R. Bolton's enjoining the most troubling aspects of the statute, portions of it remain in place, including that bigoted "intent."

Bolton's enjoinder was upheld by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Governor Jan Brewer is appealing the Ninth's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brewer owes her 2010 election victory to the signing of that bill, which was pimped primarily by current state Senate President Russell Pearce, now the subject of a November 8 recall election in Legislative District 18.

As a result, the guv has to go through the motions, even if it is highly unlikely that the Supremes, should they bother to grant review, will strip the federal government of its complete authority over immigration, ceding it to 50 state governments to cook up their own versions, no matter how crackpot.

SB 1070 has spawned similar bills in other states, and these mutant offspring mostly have been waylaid by federal judges.

Still, 1070 remains the paterfamilias of this hideous brood, an icon of un-Americanism that has made Arizona synonymous with backwardness and redneck hatred of furriners. Particularly if those furriners have brown skin.

Massive marches and acts of civil disobedience already had occurred prior to 1070's enactment. The state Capitol became the focus of demonstrators, most of them Arizonans. But some came from across America, and even from other countries, to attend.

The largest of these happened May 29, 2010, when tens of thousands walked to the Capitol in a demonstration organized in large part by Phoenix civil rights group Puente.

Mexican-American recording artist Jenni Rivera summed up the sentiments of the marchers during a performance she gave on a large stage, with the Capitol dome as a backdrop.

"They're trying to discriminate, to single us out," she declared. "They're haters, baby."

One month earlier, as 1070 sat on Brewer's desk awaiting her signature, nine brave student activists chained themselves to the old Capitol building.

Capitol police employed bolt cutters to free them. They later were led away in handcuffs and into the custody of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

As they waited to be taken to jail, they at one point began to sing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." An inspiring moment, one that raised gooseflesh on this cynical scribe's neck.

Such selfless acts and spirited protests fueled the most effective backlash to 1070 in the form of an economic boycott of the state, one that persists today, albeit anemically.

The actual dollars-and-cents impact of the boycott is difficult to categorize, given the recession under which Arizona labors, and the undisputed fact that thousands of Latinos have fled Sand Land in fear.

Yet, there has been one major fallout from the brouhaha over 1070: The business community joined the rebellion, with 60 CEOs and business owners signing a public letter to Pearce earlier this year announcing their opposition to another round of anti-immigrant legislation.

In other words, these captains of capitalism finally had realized a central truth of our age. That the stigma of bigotry — real or perceived — is bad for the bottom line.

Where the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce had remained neutral on 1070 in 2010, these entities joined, a year later, the chorus of those denouncing anti-immigrant legislation proposed by Pearce and his nativist allies.

As a result, five such bills went down to defeat in the Pearce-led Senate.

Had there been no pushback on 1070 — no protests, no boycott, no marches or symbolic lawbreaking — you can be certain that the CEOs and the chambers representing them would not have felt their profit margins threatened.

These are individuals more concerned with accounts receivable than morality. Nevertheless, the moral stance of the anti-1070 movement forced them to respond.

Bringing us to the AP article, and its minimizing of the historic events of July 29, 2010.

That article dutifully reported that 13 of the more than 70 protesters arrested that day were sentenced on August 23 to a day in jail for failure to obey deputies' orders as they stood before the giant metal doors of the Fourth Avenue Jail's central booking bay.

The AP's first inaccuracy states that these protesters' arrests took place on a day when "dozens of protesters took to Phoenix streets."

You could say dozens were arrested. But there were hundreds in the streets that day.

Protesters even took over a section of Washington Street in front of the Wells Fargo Tower, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio keeps his executive offices. Read the proverbial riot act, most dispersed to the sides, but several protesters refused to leave and were arrested by Phoenix police.

I was a witness to all this, as I was the arrest of the Fourth Avenue demonstrators, several of whom had locked their arms together with PVC pipe, in a move known in activist circles as a "sleeping dragon."

Some of the protesters were clergy with the Unitarian Universalist Association, including its president, Reverend Peter Morales, and Phoenix's Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray. All practiced non-violent civil disobedience in the finest tradition of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

That's why the AP's line describing the demonstrators as "massed outside one of Arpaio's jails, beating on a metal door and forcing sheriff's deputies to call for backup" is so ludicrous.

Heck, I was standing between that sleeping dragon and the metal doors, when the MCSO ordered everyone, including the press, away. The demonstrators, of course, remained.

Before the doors opened and deputies grabbed the demonstrators, along with some bystanders, no one was "beating" on those doors. Indeed, Sean Larkin and Antonio Bustamante, lawyers for some of the defendants in this case, told me that such a claim was never made in court by the prosecutors.

After the mass arrests, the MCSO deputies pushed the crowd back, away from the doors. Once the MCSO retreated, there may have been some door-banging or thrown water bottles, but the demonstrators arrested beforehand were not involved in that.

Since they received credit for time served, the protesters fulfilled their sentences by spending the night in Arpaio's main gulag on the evening of their arrests.

Ironically, when these protesters were found guilty, Arpaio gloated via Twitter, even though the sheriff is perhaps the most notorious unindicted criminal in the state.

Journalism is written in dust and lasts about as long. Though the AP story was reproduced in countless publications, history will make the final pronouncement.

So, when future generations study 1070 and its aftermath, they will know who stood up against 1070, Sheriff Arpaio and Sand Land's nativism, and how that defiance changed the present day.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons