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Commentary: On May 1, It's Mayday for Arizona

It’s been May Day in Arizona for a long time. We are finally catching up to Phoenix
 
 
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I asked Salvador Reza what he’s doing for May 1. The Phoenix organizer laughed. “It’s been May 1 here for years. We’re waiting for the country to catch up.” 

In January, he was part of a small team that convinced locals to come out against Joe Arpaio. The activist sheriff takes pride in arresting Latinos who he thinks look illegal, and uses state laws and federal deportation powers as legal cover. Thousands poured into the streets to demand that President Barack Obama pull the plug on him. 

It’s the most inspiring march I ever saw, to be honest. It began with a prayer. High school and college kids were out in full force. A woman, eight months pregnant, told me she was there because “there will always be good and bad in the world. We’re here to restore the balance.” Getting tear-gassed by the police didn’t ruin my memory of it. 

Ironically, the recent racism and opportunism of Arizona’s politicians helped these protestors achieve their demand. Suddenly, people care about the mad scientists in Arizona’s laboratory. American students chained themselves to the capitol building. In a flash of outrage, Congressman Raul Grijalva called for a boycott of his own state. The American Immigration Lawyers Association, a trade group for mostly business attorneys, are divesting from the state. Obama publicly decried the new law as “misguided.” 

Arizona has a penchant for extremism. Back in 1972, the state made it illegal for farm workers to organize. People were devastated. The United Farm Workers drove their forces in and bit back with a 24-day fast. 

At that time Dolores Huerta pushed Phoenix to rise above the negatives. When locals said “no se puede” – this can’t be happening to us – she responded, “Sí, se puede.” Decades later, on the road to the White House, President Barack Obama translated her chant into “Yes We Can.” 

The power he drew from social movements is the same power that confronts his administration today. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano just spoke at Harvard. Her visit should have been a liberal love fest. Time named her one of America’s top five governors when she led Arizona. If she were still there, she would have vetoed the law that her successor signed. 

Yet, she was grilled, not praised, with question after critical question. Why does Joe Arpaio still have deportation powers? Why did a mother who was breastfeeding get taken from her infant during a recent raid? Why did a Latino family get stopped three times while driving through Arizona, while whites vacation without fear? 

“We are a nation of immigrants. We are also a nation of laws,” she replied, “It’s a law you may not like. It’s clear that most of you don’t.” Napolitano was referring to immigration laws, and the audience to human rights. No one can be sure if Congress, when it does act, will bridge the gap between the two. 

Marshall Ganz –- who was with the farm workers in Phoenix in the '70s, and is a Harvard professor today -– offers a lesson in the middle of this test. “There’s never been a major reform in the U.S. without an aggressive social movement putting pressure on leadership,” he says, “no matter how friendly that leadership might be.”

Arizona is putting that pressure on the leadership. Because of SB1070, thousands are marching in this year’s May Day for the first time. Reza was right. It’s been May Day in Arizona for a long time. We are finally catching up to Phoenix. 

Aarti Shahani writes about immigration and criminal justice.