Tucson Or Not Tucson
THIS MONTH'S THEME
High summer is a bad time to live in a desert so hot, so dry, so beautiful it takes your burning breath away. Wildfires have been tearing through the mountain forests. The rare figure you can spot on the streets of the Tucson Central Business District is likely to be destitute or staggering through the 110-degree heat from one air-conditioned capsule to the next.
Yet people are flocking here. A settlement of 7,000 less than a century ago, the city had swollen to 863,000 by the last count in 2000 and had grown by more than a quarter in the previous decade alone.1 The newcomers are mostly white pensioners in pursuit of golf courses and relatively cheap 'gated communities'. But a substantial part of the population is also 'indigenous' - not only 'American Indian' (at five per cent of the total, the same as 'Black American') but 'Hispanic' (more than a quarter).
Tucson has not so much grown as sprawled to a bloated 40 miles across - and the city is rapidly running out of basics, like drinking water. Squads of SUVs (sports utility vehicles) advance like tanks across the expanding city grid. Buses are as elusive as the coyote.
Sixty miles due south is Mexico. Not so long ago Tucson - like the whole of the Southwest, including Texas and California - actually was Mexico. But the US Government invaded the country in 1846 and unceremoniously grabbed half of it. Arizona became the 43rd State of the Union only in 1912, little more than a long lifetime ago. Perhaps partly as a result, the white-immigrant majority seems to favour an assertive form of political expression. In 1964 Barry Goldwater, Senator for Arizona from 1953 to 1987, was the most reactionary Republican presidential nominee in the party's history - which takes some doing. Current Senator John McCain describes himself as 'an early foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution'.
Arizona is, after all, part of the legendary Wild West. Tombstone, site of the gunfight at the OK Coral in 1881, lies halfway between Tucson and the Mexican border. Today it is a heritage centre where closet cowboys don fancy dress and fire blanks from six-shooters in the name of tourism and charity.
But, not far away, is its modern-day equivalent - the vast Fort Huachuca military-intelligence and satellite-communications base. Along the border with Mexico are the Barry M Goldwater Air Force Range and the Yuma Proving Ground. Tucson itself has the Davis-Monthan airbase right at its heart. Ranks of mothballed B52 bombers, jet fighters, tank-busters, great pyramids of military junk, litter roadsides like the corpses of monstrous insects. More F16 jet fighters than civilian airliners seem to use the international airport which has an exclusive Military Lounge - and there is a dedicated military TV channel. Close by is the sprawling Raytheon plant which makes missiles like the ones dropped most recently on Afghanistan. Raytheon shares with the University of Arizona in Tucson a lucrative chunk of the Son of Star Wars missile-defence development programme. Robert E Walkup, Mayor of Tucson, is a former senior executive of the Hughes Aircraft Company, later swallowed by Raytheon. Concrete-hooded bunkers for nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles ring the city. Just to the north is Biosphere 2 which mimics how humans might fare if they ever felt the need to flee to another planet altogether.
As if to precipitate that day, this patch of Mother Earth literally bristles with military paraphernalia. Quite why, or where the threat to Tucson's migrant pensioners might come from no-one can say.
The other Tucson
A terrible human tragedy is unfolding here. Between 100,000 and 250,000 migrants are thought to cross the Tucson sector of the border every year, most of them heading on for family or friends in California, Chicago or New York. By the end of July this year more than a hundred of them had died crossing the desert so far - already breaking the annual record set last year.
Two young activists, Chris Ford and Jennifer Allen, work for the Southwest Alliance to Resist Militarization (SWARM).2 For the past 20 years, they say, the death toll has risen in step with an accelerating military build-up on the border. The Border Patrol is now bigger than the FBI; its freewheeling
local agents are periodically accused - and sometimes even convicted - of drug trafficking and murder. Walls, roads and surveillance devices have wrought havoc on the fragile desert environment. They are intended to direct migrants towards the most desolate and dangerous crossing points. Vigilante groups from Texas and California with names like 'American Patrol', 'Voices for Citizens Together' and 'Ranch Rescue' patrol the border on the look-out for unwanted foreigners. 'War on crime. War on drugs. War on immigrants,' laments Jennifer Allen. 'And now, of course, war on terrorism.'
The issue is no mere sideshow in Tucson. It is felt deeply across the population. But this is not a wealthy city and its long-term residents have little clout. Wages are low. One worker in eighteen is employed by a 'temp' agency; one in twenty-five in the tele-service (call-centre) industry. Employers routinely threaten to call in the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they complain. And Arizona is one of five 'Right To Work' States in the US. This does not mean what it suggests. The 'right to work' trumps the right to organize, so trade unions can legally be denied an effective voice. Exploitation hides behind fear.
'Here we are, young women in our 20s, all being able to do this work,' says Maritza, cheerfully. 'It's just so amazing, such an honour.'
She has just been talking to a machinist making missiles in the Raytheon plant. 'A very progressive man,' she says. 'He tells me, every day he's building these weapons of huge devastation. He said: "I cannot wait for the day that instead of building these bombs we're building playground equipment for children. That's what I want to be doing. That's what I want to be building." And then he told me about a little bit of sabotage that sometimes happens. You know, very delicate, very costly equipment can sometimes get dropped....'
Military and border policy leak into every aspect of Tucson life. José Matus is a member of the Yaqui tribe of Native Americans. He is a moving spirit in the Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras (Indigenous Alliance Without Borders).4 'When border policy was made, we were invisible,' he says. The Tohono O'odham native community straddles the border. Like the Yaqui and half-a-dozen other indigenous groups they need unhindered access to their elders and relatives on both sides of the border to maintain their ceremonies and language. Because of border 'security' that is now nearly impossible.
But it is not being taken lying down. 'It's a political border that simply should not be there,' says Richard Moore, director of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.5 His purpose, he says, is to 'put the US Government and transnational corporations on notice that it will not be business as usual'. The routine abuse of Indian land and poor communities in order to dump toxic waste or locate polluting industries simply has to come to an end.
Environmental issues are also uppermost in the minds of two friends, Pat Birnie and Rose Augustine. Pat embraces a bewildering variety of causes.6 Every month she attends a demonstration outside Raytheon.
A replica missile is mounted on the roof of her little Japanese car, together with the words: 'Star Wars - $60 billion hoax.'
Rose is a great-grandmother whose family moved north in 1910 when her grandfather was killed during the Mexican Revolution.7 She takes the three of us on a tour of the South Side - Tucson's Hispanic quarter.
South Side calamities
I notice that she is becoming upset. 'Usually I try to deal with one thing at a time,' she says. 'Seeing it all at once is a bit disturbing.'
And this is not the worst of it. In the 1980s residents of the South Side, Rose among them, became alarmed by the rising number of cancers and nerve disorders. In the face of official inertia, public meetings attracted as many as 9,000 local residents. Deadly trichloroethylene (TCE) had leaked into the aquifers under a large chunk of the South Side. It came from what was then the Hughes missile facility. And so all the wells had to be sealed. A federal 'Superfund' clean-up will continue for at least 20 years - or until George W Bush's cuts in environmental funds bring it to a premature close.
We sit down to talk in the children's section of the city public library. It occurs to me that Rose, Pat and their friends are having to do what any self-respecting government would be doing as a matter of course - protecting the lives and health of its citizens. The US Government is anxious to emphasize this function when it comes to bombing other people or invading other countries - but very much less active, it seems, at home.
'This is a military town,' says Rose. 'Mr Bush has done everything to destroy all the environmental laws that protect the water, air, everything for human beings to live on this planet. He's taken everything away from us that we've worked so hard for. Hour after hour, day after day, working, working, working, making things happen. And this man comes and destroys everything.
'I just don't know how to reach the people. Maybe it's too late. I see it in my grandkids. They're working a couple of jobs to make ends meet, to feed their families. When they have a day off they sure don't want to go to a meeting and hear about the nasties of life. Attending a meeting, for them, is a luxury. It's all quite deliberate, you know. So long as the people are kept busy, the government can do anything it wants.'
'I live in a mobile-home community of grey-hairs,' says Pat. 'So I go: "Yeah! All this potential! The couch potatoes will be glad to have something to do with their time." Forget it! "I've had my stress," they tell me. "I'm here to play golf and to play cards. Go away!"'
'I've seen that with people who come from other states,' adds Rose. 'It makes me angry. They're taking up our cemetery space. So I get to thinking, why don't they just start putting them in the golf course when they die, instead of taking our cemeteries?'
'People woke up after Seattle,' she says. 'Lots of excitement and a lot of new alliances were built as a result. There is more grassroots organizing happening, led in our case by the community that lives along the border with Mexico. We've been going out and knocking on doors and talking with folks about their opinions, about the Border Patrol. Are they targeting youth? Do you feel like they're corrupt? Do they racially profile? Do you know people who've been harassed? Have you filed a complaint? And people are answering: "Yes. And I want to do something about it."
'What should be happening is the building of a broader movement, led by the people who are being affected, calling for systemic change, for social change that brings a lot more justice to everyone. The first step is getting folks a space where they can lift their voice.'
That step is already being taken. In fact, thousands of Tucsonans have started to raise their voices in tune with the rolling thunder...
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.