A venue of vultures: where now for anarchists and the immigrant movement?

An account of a 2009 immigration rights march and comments on the movement's decline, leftist opportunists and the prospects for anarchist intervention.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 8, 2012

Last Saturday’s anti-Sheriff Joe march was truly a very exciting moment in recent Arizona and anarchist history. Especially given the statewide anarchist meeting that happened the following day, which was attended by fifty or so people by my count. There was a real feeling of excitement that I haven’t felt in some time and it was good to see a lot of new and familiar faces in attendance. Further, I think the discussion about tactics and politics was productive and interesting. It showed a broad and sophisticated understanding of both our politics and the political situation –tactical and strategic – in which we find ourselves these days. In that spirit, I think a few things are worth noting about the march and recent political events.

For one, this was one of the first occasions in some time when a relatively large group of Arizona anarchists came together in the street. Indeed, the march moved into the street not because of sheer numbers or because the organizers planned it that way (as was claimed after the fact – despite the obvious discomfort our actions caused them at the time). The throng moved into the street because anarchists actively pushed into the street and held it until enough other people (who obviously likewise wanted to defy the organizers’ silly and humiliating sidewalk march) joined us. The police backed down and we took the street, opening it up for everyone else.

Eventually nearly everyone was on the street and Central Avenue was shut down for a couple hours. Had we not been there, given the omnipresent though perhaps somewhat well-meaning internal protest police actively working to contain the protest (paralleling the efforts of the cops to do the same thing), the odds are that the march would have continued along the sidewalk for four pathetic miles. How sad! This is important to note, I think, not leastwise because it reveals the gulf between the organizers’ conservatism and the much more radical desires of the base. This is a space that can be occupied by anarchists. I’ll come back to this later.

The Movement Vampires Rise Again!

Second, it’s also worth noting that the celebrity of this event drew all sorts of folks, including many people I haven’t seen out in some time, like families and older people. Unfortunately, it also drew the vultures, eager, as they are, to feed on the corpse of a movement for their own petty benefit.

For instance, ANSWER, weakened from the recent death of its previous host, the anti-war movement, and which anarchists here have driven out of town every time they tried to set up shop here returned for the march and were handing out their silly literature. Anarchists confronted them and they seemed a pathetic bunch indeed. The chapter in attendance was obviously from LA and I can remember breathing a sigh of relief that we don’t have to deal with the alphabet soup of leftist cults that other big cities have to.

On that note, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) was also spotted in attendance near the ANSWER banner, hoping no doubt to bore yet another movement to death with its leftist machinations and cult of Che. Also, some people from Bring the Ruckus (BTR) were out as well, hoping to attract the unsuspecting and earnest to their front group the Repeal Coalition (and then to secretly recruit from within that pool). As usual, though, they brought no actual “ruckus” with them and they were largely invisible both in terms of effect and presence.

To the extent that these opportunistic groups remain marginalized, the hope for self-organization remains alive. Anarchists would do well to maintain the marginal status of these groups and, if possible, to shut them down before they can get their skeletal hands on what’s left of the movement. Surely if the leftist parasites have their way the small break we forced last weekend will be the last and things will quickly return to boring, ineffective business as usual.

The Dead Shall Walk the Earth!

The real problem is, however, that the immigrant movement is dead. It had a chance but the dead weight of its own tepid, middle class leadership and the forces of reaction suffocated it practically at birth. The leadership seems to have gotten scared after the first series of really big events here in town and quickly acted to contain things. After the vigorous explosions of the first couple megamarchas, it’s almost as if the bosses of the movement were more comfortable with a smaller, more manageable movement. So they downsized and ran from their base. But this had the unfortunate effect of opening them up to attack. Since that sad retreat anti-immigrant ballot initiatives have passed with overwhelming majorities (over 70 percent in almost all cases), essentially criminalizing all undocumented people in the state. So, while some may be tempted to hail Saturday’s march as a rebirth, in fact it was a wake.

And as I said, a corpse attracts vultures and the movement is dead. What we see now is an attempt to defend the last vestiges of dignity and to draw a line in the sand, perhaps too late, beyond which we all hope the reactionaries will not cross. Said another way, the immigrant movement has lost the initiative and has become a rearguard action. While I don’t think it’s impossible that the movement could revive, in a hopefully more militant, radical and truly democratic form, in order for that to happen the failed leadership must be toppled and replaced by more creative people from the base.

As far-fetched as that may seem, it’s not impossible. It’d be hard to imagine a situation in which the bankruptcy of the leadership could be any more obvious. After all, hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been deported or have “deported themselves” from this state in the last couple years as the hammer and anvil of state and reaction came down ever harder on them. This sent politicians scrambling to appease the demands from large segments of the white working and middle classes for action on their cross-class alliance with the ruling class. No political force proved up to the task of challenging the attack, not even the Federal government, and as a result the ideas of the extreme reaction to immigrants now dominate the debate in Arizona. That sounds like total failure to me. Meanwhile, the leadership has in many ways carved out for itself a cozy position as chief mediator of the movement with regard to the rest of Arizona society. Certainly there is ample cause to challenge the current leadership as well as good cause to abandon the legislative tactic.

Circle A’s in the Air!

However, returning to the march, I’m proud that Arizona anarchists pushed the tactics a little bit. Anarchists from the Phoenix Anarchist Coalition (PAC), Central Arizona Radicals Opposing Borders (CAROB), Phoenix Class War Council (PCWC) and various affinity groups have been involved locally in the immigrant movement here for many years and it was good to see business as usual downtown disrupted on Saturday. Such reactionary policies must have consequences after all – and the marches even a couple years or so ago took the street quite regularly, even if it was permitted (unlike this most recent march – a new tradition that should be defended). To have stayed on the sidewalk would have been to accept another in a long string of retreats for the movement and would have stood some distance from the heady days of the huelga and megamarchas of 2006. Further, pushing the march into the street put the conservative leadership of the march into an awkward position, which was perhaps revelatory to many participants. I certainly heard many positive comments from non-anarchists once police finally conceded the streets to us.

Perhaps where Arizona anarchists fell off was in the literature department. Our position on the border is in reality the position of the base of the movement, which by definition has rejected that arbitrary line between Mexico and the US, and flyers explaining would have been useful. I had some, but with a march that big, they go fast. Indeed, our position is an easy enough one to defend given that the immigration issue itself centers on the rejection of the border by so many people. This should be the starting point for all our arguments. It’s likewise a good argument for ferreting out the conservative positions of the movement’s leadership.

It’s a sad commentary on the leadership of the immigration movement that they have actively distanced themselves from this obvious fact. Given the congruity between the base and our position on movement and the border, anarchists would do well here to make our politics more prominent, especially if we are going to continue to push the envelope in the street. Lacking that, we do at some point risk being labeled as hooligans or worse, especially since our actions necessarily challenge the leadership of the movement. One of our goals should be to keep the pressure on and hope it opens space for new leaders and tactics to emerge by adhering to this obviously true but, within this context, fanatical position: free people need free movement.

Further, there are opportunities for us given the anti-fascist nature of the campaign against Joe. Indeed, ‘anti-fascist’ in the singular sense, since it seems very narrowly oriented towards Arpaio alone. For instance, when Mesa PD chief Gascón was butting heads with Arpaio, much of the leadership of the movement rushed to his side, despite the fact that he was using anti-gang task force to round up and harass people leaving anti-Arpaio rallies in his jurisdiction.

As anarchists, we can critique this narrow view and make both pragmatic demands as well as provide a revolutionary framework. We can demand that there be firm standards for whoever takes Joe’s job once he’s out (if that ever happens, which is in question given his broad support in Maricopa County). We can demand the closing of the camps, the end of segregation, a return to three meals a day and the termination of the everyday project of humiliation and murder that Joe pushes in his jails. At the same time, we can point out that no matter who comes in after Arpaio, that person will still be a sheriff and he or she will still be prosecuting a war against the poor and working class. We can say that no one will be free until those prison doors open and the demolition crews knock down the last wall. And the immigrant camps are a great example to advance the anti-prison argument. After all, if we can get people to see that immigrants are unjustly held then perhaps we can make similar analogies about the status of other prisoners.

Keep an eye on the right!

Turning to our adversaries on the right wing, there is a real contradiction between the acceptance of camps for immigrants and the fear of them being used by FEMA during the declaration of martial law or some other, perhaps false flag, emergency. These are legitimate fears. An argument that camps for one type of person – especially when they are run under Homeland Security – can just as easily serve as camps for gun owners resisting confiscation or ‘patriots’ resisting Wall Street bailouts can go a long way towards undermining the right wing’s faith in the ICE and affiliated detentions.

Many right-wingers, especially the Alex Jones/Ron Paul set, already recognize the dual and duplicitous nature of the many drills being run by the government across the country, and are deeply suspicious of the creation of proto-martial law formations like NorthCom and the deployment of military forces for domestic operations. This is true even while they may at the same time support such forces acting on the border. Likewise, if foreclosures continue to mount, as they surely will, it will also put the sheriff in a politically uncomfortable position. In addition, rumblings against freeway and other cameras open up other potential linkages to ideas surrounding control over movement. These are all potential fault lines in whiteness that might be exploitable by anarchists who are astute and in tune with the characteristics of that movement and can be bold enough to assert them.

All said, there are plenty of opportunities within what is left of the immigrant movement for anarchists. The question has become, what forces are at play within it and what forces are coming to bear on it? Will the vultures get their hands on it? Will the movement leadership hang onto its position despite (or perhaps because of) its failure? What will the economy mean for the movement? Is it too late? Has the struggle moved out of Arizona to greener pastures?

Time and struggle will reveal the answers to these questions.

Originally posted: March 6, 2009 at fires never extinguished