Blood Sport: a brief look at the sometimes violent resistance to public funding of sports stadiums in Arizona

An article about violence around public funding of sports stadiums in Arizona, and how this is a reflection of an isloated white working class.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 10, 2012

“I will say I’m sorry I shot you the day you stand before the court and admit what you did was an act of violence.”

Those were the uncompromising words Larry Naman, a 57 year-old homeless man with what up to that point had been a clean criminal history, said to County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox at his sentencing in July 1998. Angered over the political hi-jinx that led the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to approve a sales tax to fund the downtown Diamondbacks stadium on a 3-2 vote (Wilcox was the tie-breaker), Naman had almost a year previously walked into a public meeting and shot Wilcox in the ass with a .357 revolver.

With the return of the public financing debate now that the Phoenix Coyotes are up for sale, it's worth looking back at the contentious and sometimes violent history surrounding local capitalist's drive for publicly-subsidized profit. On more that one occasion Arizonans have taken violent action in response to both the blatant undemocratic process of capitalist development and the obvious hypocrisy of capitalists enriching themselves on the public dime.

Attacking the capitalist dictatorship

Following the shooting, Mary Rose Wilcox said she wasn't surprised it had happened, given the controversy of the vote, which itself had circumvented a previous public referendum, passed by a 2-1 margin, forbidding the raising of sales tax for the express purpose of building public sports facilities valued at over $3 million without a public vote. That law had passed as a result of public outrage following the city of Phoenix's massive subsidy of the Phoenix Suns stadium downtown, a facility the Suns shared with the Coyotes until they moved to Glendale to cohabitate with the Cardinals in what eventually became known as the University of Phoenix Stadium, itself built as another publicly-financed project.

The University of Phoenix project passed by county referendum with a narrow 52% approving. In the case of the Phoenix Suns arena, the city eventually swallowed almost 40 percent of the tab, and Maricopa County residents covered the vast majority of the funds for the Cardinals new West Valley home. The important fact to remember with regard to Naman is that, after the initial public outrage over the Suns stadium, and despite the successful referendum restricting public financing, nevertheless when major league baseball came touting an expansion team in 1994, the legislature deliberately transferred responsibility for the stadium's construction to the county and the city of Phoenix specifically in order to circumvent the law and the popular will.

Facing 21 years in prison at his sentencing, Naman, unrepentant, spoke for 40 minutes, denouncing the move to build the stadium. "I shot Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox to try to put a stop to the political dictatorship of Jerry Colangelo", he said, referring the Phoenix sports big shot and Diamondbacks owner. Colangelo had earned the public's ire by refusing to participate in ownership without a public subsidy. When interviewed by Kevin J. Delaney and Rick Eckstein for their book Public Dollars, Private Stadiums, Colangelo put it this way: "There was a tax on the books, the tax was going to expire, baseball was thinking about an expansion, and there was a window. There wasn't time to build a lot of public support and take it to a vote... Nor was I interested in going through that whole process [emphasis mine]." Speaking to reporters, Naman said he'd have shot Colangelo, too, "if I had seen him."

Twelve years later, this December, Naman walked free from prison, a model prisoner without even a single disciplinary mark against him. Wilcox remains unrepentant, although in 1999 she conceded that perhaps future expenditures ought to go up for a public vote. "I had hooked a very good jobs program to our stadium [proposal] — about 3,000 jobs and about 60 percent for a low-income and minority district like mine is," she said. Colangelo and his rich buddies got to feast at the public trough and we got some jobs hawking popcorn that costs more than the hourly wage of the seller.

Waste not, want not

On April 1st 2011, just a few months after Naman's release, and in the midst of capitalist crisis, police allege that an angry Mesa water treatment worker, 43-year-old Robert Olson, armed with a pistol, walked through the city's otherwise deserted Deerfield Wastewater Treatment Plant shutting down critical operating systems one after the other. If the sewage wasn't properly treated, methane gas could build up, potentially leading to a huge explosion at the massive facility. A few hours into his sabotage, after downing some margaritas and beers that he had brought with him, Olson called 911 and following a couple more hours of negotiations, he surrendered to police. He told the cops that by his actions he wanted to show the city that “employees had power.”

On the phone with the 911 operator, Olson said, “I am an operator at the Greenfield Water Reclamation Plant. I have basically taken the plant hostage." He lamented having to file for bankruptcy and a life where he felt like he had been walked all over without ever standing up for himself: "You've got the angel on one side and devil on one side I feel like the bad side is starting to take over. I have been a doormat most of my life, I've taken people's crap and never said anything." That's certainly a common enough feeling under capitalism's dictatorship, even in "good" times.

Now charged with terrorism, court documents begin to paint a picture of what may have motivated the accused civil servant in his late-night sabotage. Olson had transferred from the Avondale water treatment division on the west side of town three years ago in order to work closer to home and spend more time with his family. But not long after moving jobs, the pain of the economic crisis began to bite in Mesa. Determined to foist the cost of the crisis onto workers and the poor, city officials imposed first a pay cut and then a pay freeze on Mesa workers.

“Omigosh,” said neighbor McCaffery when questioned by the East Valley Tribune. “He’s a heckuva a nice guy. I knew he was struggling with his house that went into foreclosure and moved his family in with his in-laws, but I didn’t realize he was having other problems. He was such an easy-going guy, and didn’t have trouble with any of the neighbors. I can’t picture Rob doing anything like that. I hope he’s not in too much trouble.”

One can't help but notice the "welcome to the new normal" nature of that comment, where a foreclosure and moving in with your wife's family barely merit as serious problems in the current economy. But the tribune reports that health care costs began to take a toll as well. And while the pay cut, foreclosure, life at the in-laws' crowded house and health care premiums may have been problems Olson could deal with, the city's pending deal for a new spring training facility for the Chicago Cubs really stuck in his craw. On the day of Olson's protest against wage cuts, the Arizona Republic reported that the city's cost of the new Cubs training facility could run to $84 million.

A coyote is both a predator and a scavenger

Meanwhile on the other side of the Valley of the Sun, at the time of this writing the city of Glendale struggles to close a deal to keep the local pro hockey team, the Coyotes, in their gleaming, spaceship-like two hundred million dollar desert arena. The deal centers around a secretive 40 year-old investment fund manager, Matthew Hulsizer, who, if the sale goes through, will be outright gifted $100 million directly from the city's coffers (raised through bond sales), and then guaranteed a further $97 million in future revenue for agreeing to take over and operate the venue. Not bad for a sale valued at only $170 million! According to my math, that's a $27 million dollar profit just for existing!

Millionaire Matthew Hulsizer (center) watches a Coyotes game

After graduating from uber-expensive Amherst College (nearly 50 g's a year at current rates!), according to the Chicago Tribune, Hulsizer started off his career in what was once called the "the biggest securities firm no one had ever heard of," O'Connor & Associates. After working there for some years, he moved on to open with his wife their own investment firm called Peak6, which he started with capital provided by others, including the O'Connor brothers and "family". It pays to be where the money is.

And, starting in the 90's, as the economy increasingly financialized, the money likewise moved to firms like Peak6, "one stop shops" that would deal in all sorts of arcane financial instruments, including the infamous derivatives that triggered the financial crisis in 2008. But don't worry, Hulsizer has come through it all right. No foreclosures on his horizon. His lakeside mansion is as comfortable as ever. And with a guaranteed profit out the gate of $27 million on the deal, I think he's going to be very happy with his life going forward either way, even if those pesky conservatives at the Goldwater institute get their way and squash the deal.

For Hulsizer, owning a hockey team would be a dream come true, probably a lot like getting rich is a dream come true, too (assuming he wasn't born rich, as it seems he likely was). Secretive though he may be, Hulsizer has been quoted remarking about his love of the game and how he played hockey a bit himself. "I'm a hockey fan, a hockey coach and a hockey player and I would like to join the club," he told USA Today. The Business Insider writes that "[Hulsizer] actually played hockey at Division III Amherst College and is currently a registered USA Hockey coach in Winnetka, Illinois."

But how surprising is it for the dreams of the rich to come true? Hardly at all, naturally. Hockey is Hulsizer's hobby and his fortune accommodates him. And if not his fortune, then the public largess will take cover it. After all, for him merely having the wealth is good enough -- he need not actually spend it! But what about the rest of us? What about the Naman's and the Olson's out there? Foreclosed on, homeless, cut wages, hiked premiums, dislocated families, all as a result of the machinations and profiteering, often at the public trough, of folks like Hulsizer and Colangelo, and facilitated by politicians like Wilcox.

The sun sets on Arizona

In Arizona over the last several years, the main thrust of general working class resistance has emerged from the migrant/Latino community. It was they who boldly went out on general strike in 2006, long before the crisis began to nip at the picket fences of white suburbia. Most white people's homes were still accruing value month upon month at that point, but with wages still stuck in neutral for more than a decade, the white working and middle class unfortunately increasingly turned towards using the law to restrict the labor market in hopes of extracting wage increases or protection for themselves from capital's ravages.

Just this year, however, the Arizona capitalist class finally balked at further restrictions, indicating a split with its temporary alliance with the white working and middle class, the signs of which we recognize in the slashing of budgets across the board and the imposition of austerity even on the white middle class. Rising up through their political organ the Chamber of Commerce the capitalists vocally shut down a new bevy of anti-immigrant laws.

We can look back now and point to the utter failure of the strategy pursued in the last decade by the organized and mobilized section of the white working class. With what is probably well over a hundred thousand Mexican and other workers who feel similarly threatened by the reaction in Arizona having exited the state with their families since SB1070 passed (double digit decreases in enrollment at public schools are one indicator amongst many), the magic has not returned to the Arizona economy. The employment numbers are not predicted to return to "normal" until mid-decade. Wages, where they are not frozen, are decreasing across the board.

And the housing market remains stuck in the doldrums, not because Mexicans were building houses or taking jobs from whites, but because there were too many houses built in a bubble whose inflation as well as inevitable deflation benefited a small class at the top of the Arizona economy. Builders, developers and bankers received their bailouts and guarantees, but none of it accrued to the working class in any permanent way, as naturally it wouldn't without a militant working class in motion to demand it. So lacking that, millionaires like Hulsizer clean up while folks like us get the shaft.

To think in a time of massive advances for the capitalists and of retreat for the working class, that a strategy of defending white privilege over class solidarity would lead anywhere but to a hardening of already existing divisions that could then be further exploited by the capitalists was worse than naive, it was in fact the sad default class politics of the white working class playing out. This leaves us in a situation where the white working class in Arizona has isolated itself, even organized in opposition to the rest of the working class, believing that its cross-class alliance with the rich would protect it in the long run. Clearly it has not.

And now, as the chickens come home to roost for white working and middle class families in Arizona, as predictably they would, they now have nowhere to go to express their anger but into the arms of further reaction like the Tea Party on one hand or into isolated acts of violence and sabotage on the other. Even the professional mediators, bargainers and recuperators of the left offer nothing. That's a poor excuse indeed for the broad-based resistance that is necessary and might potentially give such acts a broader meaning beyond that which resonates only with the singular atoms, millions though they are, of screwed over Arizonans consuming its message as individuals in isolation. In circumstances of rising class struggle hopeless lone wolves become transformed into militants for their class as their opportunities for meaningful struggle multiply. These conditions not not apply today.

But with the crisis deepening and individuals feeling their backs increasingly against the wall, unless the white working class can wake up and betray its racist instincts by recognizing its common struggle with other people, we can probably expect more of the same isolated lashing out, which even if it can sometimes inspire with its fanatical rejection of compromise or dead-end bourgeois politicking, can never replace a working class movement determined to topple capitalism and the state.

Originally posted: April 26, 2011 at fires never extinguished