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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 10/23/16

Humanizing Our Militarized Border

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This historic sketch of southern Arizona would not be complete without noting the 1871 Camp Grant Massacre, which set a tone for the rest of the 19th century and even into the modern era. Camp Grant was located northeast of Tucson, by then a key commercial way station on the route to California. Under policy set by President Grant, a Quaker military officer had set up a camp to feed and shelter 500 starving Apaches. At the time, the US Army saw itself as "protecting" Indians from the civic and business leaders of Tombstone and Tucson; at the time, Tucson leaders were called "The Tucson Gang." These folks were convinced the Army's camp was breeding hostiles -- ie, the "terrorists" of the time. Calling themselves the Tucson Committee of Public Safety, they mounted a raid in which they killed and scalped 150 people, mostly women and children, since most of the men were away from the camp. The military was caught by surprise and did nothing. President Grant was outraged and demanded a murder trial, and it took 19 minutes for a jury to acquit the 100 people charged. The massacre was soon forgotten as development growth increased. A guerrilla war grew and went on until the last 35 starving warriors under the famous Geronimo gave up and were sent by train to imprisonment in Florida. The good people of Tucson and elsewhere grew to accept incidents like Camp Grant as unfortunately necessary to enable the destined Anglo way of life.

The Encuentro At the Border

Landing in Tucson last week as a 69-year-old, wiser version of the unruly youth there in the late 60s, the first thing I noticed driving south on Interstate 19 was all road signs south of Tucson give distances in kilometers. I scanned the radio dialed and found more than half the stations were in Spanish. The borderland is thoroughly bilingual. The encuentro crowd had not arrived yet; in the evening, the motel bar was populated by Mexicans singing karaoke ballads of love and death and beloved horses. It provided me the opportunity to practice my bad Spanish. One Mexican man I spoke with in English -- he was a US citizen -- told me how he was humiliated as a kid when he spoke Spanish in school. This is normal behavior for a dominant culture -- in this case, Anglos; suppress the language of the dominated culture. I explained to this man the politics of the encuentro, and he and his woman companion gave me a thumbs up.

Veterans For Peace march to the wall, and a banner for deported veterans
Veterans For Peace march to the wall, and a banner for deported veterans
(Image by John Grant)
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It began to grow on me that it was too late to stop Mexicans and Mexican culture from having a powerful demographic power in the Arizona borderlands. One, Mexicans had lived as citizens in the area in the mid-nineteenth century when it was under Mexican sovereignty; suddenly, they were second class citizens in an Anglo culture. Two, in the age of cell phones, computers and social media, cultures cannot be geographically confined as they once were. And three, the effort to keep southern Arizona "Anglo" feels like a last-ditch effort to keep alive the Manifest Destiny spirit of the original settlers. I submit that spirit focused on keeping hostile Apaches at bay to the east and resentful Mexicans on their side of a hardening border to the south pervades the subsequent commercial agents of development to this day. The question now is, how to sustain the integrity of a national border without doing violence to the humanity of a respectful, mixed cultural community. The answer would seem to lie in a pragmatic approach that accepts the borderlands as a cultural gray zone: Exactly what is suggested by the label Ambos Nogales.

The US/Mexico borderlands and immigration problems are also complicated by events in places like El Salvador and Honduras, which suffered during the Reagan eighties and afterwards. The rise of incredible violence following the 2010 coup in Honduras -- accepted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration -- has fueled immigration pressure. This is clear when you consider the fact there are virtually no immigrants coming north from Nicaragua. Add all this up, and it becomes clear why the "dialogue" between the US and Mexico/Central America over the years has not been a healthy one, especially for the poor and powerless south of our border. As mentioned earlier, the Drug War and the ruthless corruption it breeds is, of course, all tangled up in this lack of dialogue and respect.

The militarization of the borderlands now feature full-stop, car-search military checkpoints on US Interstate Highways like I-19 from Nogales to Tucson. You've been driving 75 MPH or more and suddenly you're stopped under a huge awning over the roadway. A man in camouflage carrying an automatic weapon walks up and looks into your car. "How you doin', sir?" "I'm good." The armed man radiates a subtle sense of suspicious, as if I've done something wrong. He nods, "Have a nice day, sir." Apparently there are many of these kinds of checkpoints in Arizona and California. An encuentro workshop speaker reported that in the agricultural Central Valley of California such checkpoints are set up on an east-west basis, which he concluded was meant to keep "illegals" in the agricultural zone and prevent them from moving east or west.

The 19th and the 20th centuries are now history. Tucson has been designed and developed into a dense, irrigated miracle of air-conditioned suburban boxes in the desert centered on golf courses and connected by highways. Tom Zoellner writes in his excellent book A Safeway In Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America that the Arizona miracle has serious cracks, one being a worrisome dearth of social connectivity despite, or because of, all the developmental growth. Conservative Arizona governments focus on low taxes and minimal services. In some quarters, fear, political reaction and the potential for Second Amendment violence harkening back to the Wild West days may be the most powerful social connection. Here's Zoellner:

"[Tucson] had rocketed to prosperity on the same factors that had driven the Gadsden Purchase in 1854: race and technology. The race question had been one of American slaves and not cheap Mexican labor, and the technology had been that of the railroad instead of the automobile. But the base factors were the same."

It's encouraging that the Clinton campaign has not written Arizona off and is sending Hillary surrogates there for speeches. The notoriously right-wing Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in the Phoenix area is now facing charges of ignoring a federal judge's ruling and could conceivably go to jail. His run may be ending. There seems to be a significant element of decent, even progressive, people in the borderlands -- people who volunteer with many wonderful organizations like No More Deaths that do things like keep full water bottles at key points in the harsh desert for people coming from Mexico. When it comes to border fiction in popular culture, sensational violence often rules; the recent film Frontera (Border)is the smart exception. Ed Harris plays an Arizona borderlands rancher who comes to a very human and workable peace over his border fence with an illegal Mexican character played by Michael Pena who was wrongfully charged with murdering his wife.

The SOA Watch group that sponsored the Encuentro At the Border is expected to repeat the event next year and in years to come. Veterans For Peace was a strong presence there, and is expected to continue an interest in the border. It would be wonderful to see the idea of an encuentro at the US border in Ambos Nogales grow into a movement to bring sanity and humanity to our border. As in the annual demonstrations at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, the local newspaper, The Nogales International, cited how much business the encuentro brought into Nogales. The Americana Hotel was filled to capacity for the first time in its history. Efforts to humanize the border are good for business.

Put it on your calendar: Next Year in Ambos Nogales!

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I'm a 72-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and political (more...)

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