The Other United States: repression, marginalization and grass-roots resistance in the US
by Alejandro Reyes
Published by: Ciepac
The United States is going through a very particular historic moment. On one hand, the war in Iraq has turned into a genocidal chaos with no end in sight. Corruption scandals have shaken the public’s trust in the government and the system. The real estate market suffered a precipitous collapse that resulted in many people losing their homes and many more going bankrupt, and that announced the beginning of the worst financial crisis since the 1920s and a fracture of the global capitalist system. At the same time, nearly seven years of “homeland security” policies have led to an alarming reduction of civil liberties and the institutionalization of torture. The crisis and fear led to increasingly virulent anti-immigrant postures and to an unprecedented militarization of the border. In this context, the election of Barak Obama as the new Democrat president of the United States was received with skepticism by many people whose reality remains practically invisible, despite the fact that they have undoubtedly been the most affected-the poor and “people of color,” racial minorities that, more often than not, are not a minority.
Life in the poorest neighborhoods of the U.S. is extremely difficult and tends to get worse. Such is the case with South Central Los Angeles, today a mostly Latino neighborhood. It was here that one of the most important rebellions in the United States took place in 1992, when the police officers who had brutally beat Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver, were acquitted by an almost all-white jury. The rebellion was the people’s desperate response to police violence, but also to a situation that at the time seemed untenable and which has only gotten worse: high unemployment levels, increasingly lower salaries, overcrowding, scarcity of housing and expensive rents, racial segregation, gangs, drug addiction, a disastrous educational system, abysmal health services, high obesity and malnutrition rates due to the lack of healthy food sources.
But it was precisely in this neighborhood that, during more than 14 years, flourished the most important urban garden in the U.S.: 14 acres cultivated by over 300 poor, mostly Latino families. South Central Farm was not only a creative alternative for economic self-sustainability, but also a source of high-quality foodstuffs at affordable prices. In addition, the farmers preserved ancient farming traditions, knowledge of traditional medicine, and ancestral seeds. The farm was a place for conviviality away from the violence, drugs, gangs, and racism, a refuge where children could play without fear, where traditional celebrations and ceremonies took place. Many of the farmers were members of the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign.
But a complex mesh of political and economic interests led the government of Antonio Villaraigosa-a Latino and a Democrat-to destroy the farm in June 2006, despite the formation of a broad social movement in its defense. This organic solution to the health, food, education, drugs, and crime problems of the community meant nothing to the politicians and entrepreneurs eager to profit from the land when a new freight train corridor made the price of real estate skyrocket. Today, a small group of farmers continues organizing and preserving the dream of the farm in lands outside the city.
The farm was destroyed in order to build a warehouse for the clothing company Forever 21. This is one of the businesses combated by the Garment Worker Center (GWC), which accuses it of violating workers’ rights of its employees, most of them immigrants. The GWC, an independent, community-based, horizontally-driven organization, operates in downtown Los Angeles, at the heart of the thriving clothing industry. Although much has been said about the global maquiladora industry, which hops from country to country in search of ever cheaper labor, little is talked about the internal sweatshop industry, which takes advantage of the precarious conditions of immigrant workers (fear, ignorance of labor laws, difficulties with the language, harassment for being undocumented, threats, and constant abuse) in order to reduce costs without having to take production offshore. The Garment Worker Center organizes with sweatshop workers to combat these practices, within the context of an increasing criminalization of and hostility toward immigration.
In recent years there has been a significant increase of anti-immigrant legislation. This has resulted in the deportation of over a million immigrants in the last three years-with a deportation rate three times higher than a decade ago. At the same time, it has seriously affected the living conditions of migrants, which facilitates exploitation. But the numbers can hardly speak of the everyday reality of millions of people who now live in a state of constant terror. A reality portrayed by the frighteningly common stories of the children left behind when immigration authorities take their parents away. By the stories of terrified families seeing heavily armed agents enter their homes kicking doors, threatening them with their weapons, handcuffing and dragging away people whose only crime was to work. By the stories of the panic of losing all material possessions and finding oneself deported in some border town without a penny in one’s pocket. By the stories of the months or years of detention, of being forcefully injected anti-psychotic drugs, in violation of international human rights legislations, of manipulated legal proceedings, of abuse and humiliation by immigration authorities. And also by the stories of the hundreds of people who die each year trying to cross an increasingly militarized border.
In this context, collectives like the very Zapatista Tierra y Libertad in Tucson, Arizona, organize from below to resist. Their objective is to combat specific issues, such as the immigration raids that maintain communities in a constant state of fear, but above all to build collective awareness through education and participation in organization. Because of that, in addition to an informational campaign on civil and immigrant rights they develop community self-sustainability projects, “rebel art” workshops, and community educational projects. The point is to create autonomous alternatives from below by communities which no longer believe in solutions from the government or political parties and who decide to take back control of their own lives.
Another interesting organization along those lines is the Kilombo Intergaláctico in Durham, North Carolina. The Kilombo is a social center where communities of color, migrants, workers, and students look for solutions for their everyday lives while connecting themselves to anti-capitalist movements around the world. The Kilombo is inspired by the Zapatista struggle but also by Argentinean piqueteros, the Black Panthers and Young Lords of the United States, and the palenques or quilombos of colonial times in the Americas (communities in resistance of runaway slaves, indigenous people, and mestizos). In Zapatista style, their strategies for organization and struggle are centered on assemblies, encounters, autonomy, territory, knowledge, and communication. The center has educational and sports programs (English, Spanish, literacy, computing, reading workshops, capoeira), a library, rights workshops, a radio project, a community garden, a health clinic, an affordable housing project, and an independent publisher.
One of the most serious problems affecting the poor and people of color communities is gentrification in the name of “progress,” real estate speculation, and commercial interests. It is a process that involves private investors, multinational companies, and local, state and federal politicians, and which results in the systematic displacement of poor populations, distancing them from their sources of income and destroying community ties. Such is the case, among many, of the Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas, which the Paso del Norte Plan intends to destroy in order to build a large shopping center. As the organizers of the resistance (members of the Zapatista’s Other Campaign) explain, the Segundo Barrio is not only the oldest neighborhood in El Paso but, most importantly, a live community with a population of mostly Mexican origin-a veritable survival system that allows that excluded population to resist with its culture, its language, and its economic condition.
In New York, El Barrio, in East Harlem, suffers the same problem. One of the main aggressors currently is the London-based Dawnay, Day Group, which in 2007 bought 47 buildings and which intends to evict the residents for the sake of luxury developments. But the problem is much older than that, and in December 2004 residents of five threatened buildings organized themselves and formed the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, which through media campaigns, legal actions, demonstrations, and direct actions struggle against gentrification. After the release of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Movement for Justice in El Barrio decided to join the Other Campaign and adopt Zapatista forms of struggle. In 2006 they organized the “Consulta del Barrio,” a long process whereby community members determined their priorities and strategies for struggle. In October 2007 they organized the First New York Encounter for Humanity and Against Gentrification, with the participation of organizations from all over New York and other cities that struggle against gentrification. In March 2008 the movement launched an International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, with the purpose not only of strengthening the resistance but of joining forces with struggles in other parts of the world.
Another ever present issue in communities of color is police violence and abuse. This past New Year’s Eve the black youth Oscar Grant was detained by a group of BART police at a subway station in Oakland, California. While his friends and a number of people protested desperately, two (white) policemen threw him face down on the ground. One of them immobilized him with a knee on the youth’s neck, while the other one withdrew his gun and shot him in the back, murdering him. The incident became public because of the many witnesses present and because it was captured on video on two cell phones, resulting in violent demonstrations. But police brutality and racism against communities of color is the norm throughout the country. As a response, CopWatch organizations have been created in many cities. Their members patrol the cities with video cameras, alert residents of checkpoints and raids, and organize community self-defense. In Los Angeles, CopWatch L.A., with Zapatista inspiration as well as other autonomist movements, is part of a much broader community autonomy project called Revolutionary Autonomous Communities (RAC), which includes community gardens, nurseries, and other collective projects.
Police violence is accompanied by legal mechanisms that tend to criminalize youth. For example, gang injunction laws forbid members of certain gangs to get together in certain geographical areas. But the ways in which authorities determine who is a gang member are very haphazard, which results in many youths, gang members or not, being criminalized for things as simple as getting together with friends in public, riding a bicycle, wearing clothes of certain colors, or using a cellular phone. The stories of abusive repression of youth of color are plentiful. In New York, a black 16-year-old has already been in jail several times-for passing from one subway car to another, for not signing up when entering a housing project.
These are the youths who supposedly have civil rights. But undocumented migrants cannot even aspire to that much. “Illegal” immigration has been severely criminalized in the last several years, so that today the “crime” of immigration results not only in deportation, but in detention for periods that can last years. In September 2008 the largest immigration raid took place in Postville, Iowa. Three hundred people were arrested, accused not only of illegal entry into the country, but of identity theft, a Class C felony with long prison sentences. The accusation was likely to have been dismissed in court, but pressures and threats, together with fear, ignorance of the laws, and unavailability of legal counsel led most of those detained to declare themselves guilty in exchange for supposedly shorter sentences of up to two years in prison.
But, why this criminalization? Part of the answer is found in the post-9/11 shift toward “homeland security” policies. The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was part of Justice Department, was dismantled in March 2003, with most its functions transferred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), now under the Department of Homeland Security. With a budget of almost 6 billion dollars, ICE’s scope has been redefined to include the fight against terrorism and national security threats, a function that has been significantly played up in ICE rhetoric. However, the minute number of terrorists and “national security threats” detained (114 out of 814,073 between 2004 and 2007) is obviously insufficient to justify either the budget or the hardline rhetoric. The answer, therefore, is to present migrant workers as criminals capable of threatening national security.
But perhaps a more important factor is the privatization of prisons, in what has come to be termed the “prison industrial complex,” a multi-billion dollar industry that obviously needs “clients.” The United States has the largest prison population per capita in the world. The privatization of prisons not only results in direct profits from state funds. Much more lucrative is prison slave labor, permitted under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Prisoners, who for US capitalism are “social surplus,” represent a formidable source of cheap labor. Today, many companies use the labor of prisoners who are paid approximately 25 cents per hour.
What all of this shows is a complex mechanism to “reuse” millions of people who no longer have a place in the system. In this context, autonomist struggles play a fundamental role. To many people, the system is so complex and perverse that there is no way to change it from above. The reforms undertaken by the Barak Obama administration do not intend, nor would they be capable if they did, of restructuring the system in its foundation. For communities at the very bottom of the social scale, the only viable alternative is community and autonomous organization and the creation of networks of resistance with struggles in other parts of the country and the world.
(*) NOTE: The author is a writer and alternative journalist, member of the Radio Zapatista collective and a doctoral candidate of Latin American literature.