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Xochitl Bervera: Report from Phoenix

January 22, 2010

Video via Abraham Calderón

Kung Li and Xochitl Bervera (Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights) travelled to Maricopa County, Arizona last Saturday for the national day of protest against Sheriff Arpaio, organized by Puente, TonaTierra, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.  Maricopa County has been called “ground zero” in the struggle for immigrant rights and Arpaio likened to Birmingham’s Bull Connor of the 1960’s.  Coming from Atlanta, GA, Bervera and Kung believed it was important to show solidarity from the eastern part of the Southland, and hoped to learn some lessons to carry back home.  They were not disappointed.

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Marchers gathered in Falcon Park, three miles north of the Maricopa County Jail and across the street from Carl Hayden High School, where 94% of the student body is Latino and the 75% graduation rate is far higher than the national average.  When we arrived at 9:00, there were already hundreds of protesters milling around, talking, laughing, waiting in line for the bathrooms, signing in, and picking up the beautifully printed official march posters.  By 10:00, the number was in the thousands.  And the air was electric.  Dozens of men and women wore orange PUENTE shirts and gathered in clusters around the park, planning, talking, holding banners and bull horns.  Sal Reza of TonaTierra paced back and forth on the back of the flatbed truck that was acting as the stage, stepping over instruments and getting the line up together.

The crowd held elders, young mothers, families with babies in strollers, and school aged children holding signs declaring “We Are Human!”  There were 15 foot high, beautifully hand painted Virgen de Guadalupes, comical and scathing depictions of Arpaio, and painstakingly detailed posters depicting unity among indigenous peoples and demanding freedom.  A small group of cholos sported handsomely printed “Fuck Joe Arpaio” tees while they smoked cigarettes and looked tough. A white man asked whether they had Tees for sale and the toughest looking of them all broke into a big grin.  “Sure!” he said, before regaining his cool, “Ten dollars.”

The paleta man rang his bell and kids pointed to their fathers which ice cream bar they wanted.  Others waited their turn for elotes and mangoes, chile sprinkled on top.  If it weren’t for the political signs, one could be excused for mistaking the friendliness and positive energy for a festival or a fiesta of some sort.  But the signs were clear.  “Abajo con Arpaio/Down With Arpaio,” “Stop the Abuse, End the Raids” “Open the Borders,” “We are Human,” “Immigration Reform Now!”  There was a Haitian solidarity sign.  Children carried posters with a giant butterfly printed on it and the words “Freedom/Libertad.”

A gigantic rubber Sheriff Arpaio head bumbled through the crowd, waving his nightstick and rubbing a big belly.  A couple of young women snuck up behind him and dramatically kicked him in the rear.  The crowd around him laughed loudly and pointed. It made the real Sheriff’s comeuppance seem inevitable, if not immediate.

And then the ceremony started with the smell of comal and the sound of a conch.  A circle formed around the dozen Native dancers, who moved to the beat of the drums and ankle rattles, feathers on their heads. They blessed the crowd, turned to the North, South, East and West, held their arms up high and then crouched low to the earth.  The elder in the center held up a cob of corn and said, “este es el único pasaporte que necesitamos.”

Then the speakers on the truck bed boomed with Sal’s Bienvenido!  We all turned towards his voice: mothers and grandfathers, teenage boys with their Mexi-Mohawks and giant earrings, girls in skinny jeans and traditional Mexican blusas, toddlers chewing on signs, Anglos wearing “Arpaio Doesn’t Speak for America” T-shirts, and Korean drummers from Los Angeles who came in solidarity.

Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine shared the stage with Linda Rondstadt, Los Jornaleros del Norte, and Delores Huerta.  The speakers delivered the same message in different ways – some singing, some speaking, some funny, some serious: Basta ya! It’s time for Sheriff Arpaio to go!

And then the organizers called us into action.  At the front were the dancers and drummers, and from our vantage point at the top of a picnic table, the sea of people was impressive.  Thousands and thousands of people had joined the crowd since we’d arrived.

The chants began:  “Si Se Puede!  Si Se Puede!”  Hundreds of people surged by us chanting in unison.  A group of young people with a bullhorn got closer to the front and teased the others, “Se Se boring!” they laughed.  And began jumping up and down.  “El que no brinca es migra!  El que no brinca es Arpaio!” Jump, hop, dance.  Over ten thousand people filled the street with raised fists and an urgent energy.  The march stretched two miles long.

Marching, we passed supporters who smiled and waved.  The chants changed.  “Uneté, uneté, a la lucha, uneté!”  Kids stood on cars and mothers came out of their house to watch.  On one corner, we passed a police officer standing on his car taking pictures of the protesters.  On another, two DOJ officials looked on.  A couple with a dog on a leash joined in the march shouting newly learned chants.

The final rally was much like the initial one – songs and speeches that many gathered to hear while others drifted off toward home or work.  There was no direct confrontation with Arpaio or dramatic end, but the power of the marchers was undeniable and we left confident that Arpaio’s days are numbered.  All over this nation, we need to continue to push for federal intervention in Maricopa County.  What happens there affects us all.

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