Police-State Treatment Of Latino Civil Rights Efforts in Arizona

The treatment and arrest of Mexican-American civil rights leader Sal Reza, head of the group Puente and opponent of Arizona’s SB 1070 last Thursday by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies reminds me of the 1960s treatment of civil rights protesters, especially the treatment of blacks. While not the same, Arizona is a modern police state similar to the police states of the south during the 1960s.

During the 1960s the controlling white population found it acceptable that the police could be used against people of color and Americans who spoke out against protests of all kinds such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Women’s Movement. We have all read, seen on television, or heard the stories of the police attacking blacks and other civil rights protestors with night sticks, shot guns, and dogs. It was a shameful use of the police in our history and contributed to the current distrust between law enforcement and communities of color. This distrust has only grown as people of color have been singled out by law enforcement officers for years. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva states in Racism Without Racists “blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the policy that, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, and if charged for a capital crime, executed.”

However, our law enforcement culture has changed in many ways since the 1960s. One of the important changes to note is that modern day police have much greater power to violate civil rights and civil liberties than ever before. While the police states of the south had brutalized black people for decades (centuries, really), the tools they had to conduct their terror were not as sophisticated as they are today—not that this made much difference to the victims of the police brutality—but the direction our police have gone since then impact the civil rights of all Americans, especially those who are “othered” in our society for whatever reason. Today the police have more tools of intimidation at their disposal and anyone who thinks our civil rights are important should be concerned.

Over the last 20 years of the American “tough on crime” ethic, we have developed a hyper-active law enforcement. Now we have police who are out with armored personnel carriers, high tech body armor, and automatic weapons. This results in a system that can easily abuse constitutional rights as what seems to have happened with Mr. Reza. The arrest of a known older civil rights protestor by a swat team is an example of political oppression. It appears that Mr. Reza was arrested because of his political views and his membership in an organization, not his involvement in any illegal activities. This is one example of the consequences of our modern militarized police machine.

Protection of our civil rights and civil liberties are key aspects of citizenship and critical for the success of democracy. We live in a police state that is exercising its power to repress political opposition, silence political views, and intimidate members of certain civil rights organizations. This is increasingly being used against Latinos and anti-racist white allies in Arizona who are participating in their constitutional rights to speak out against policies of the state. This is a sad commentary on American society, politics, and culture. Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies’ actions are contributing to our police state. And they call themselves Americans.

Civil Rights Leaders Remembered: Photo and Video Series (Platon/Remnick)

The New Yorker website has a fascinating and informative photo/video collage of photos of civil rights activists and leaders here. It is interactive and revealing. Here is their lede:

An interactive portfolio about the civil-rights era, with contemporary portraits by Platon, historical photographs, interviews, and audio commentary by David Remnick, whose written introduction appears below the portfolio. Click on any image to begin.

Dorothy Height Dies: Key Civil Rights Leader

225px-DorothyHeight_Book_Nordstrom_VA_15feb97Civil rights activist, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, died today at age 98. In her long and distinguished career she was an educator and civil rights activist. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 during the Clinton administration.(photo: wikipedia)

President Obama made this comment on her life, calling her “the godmother of the civil rights movement”:

Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality … and served as the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way.

Wikipedia has this on key aspects of her long life:

Height was born in Richmond, Virginia. At an early age, she moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania. Height was admitted to Barnard College in 1929, but upon arrival, she was denied entrance because the school had an unwritten policy of admitting only two black students. She pursued studies instead at New York University, earning a degree in 1932, and a master’s degree in educational psychology the following year.

Height started working as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department and, at the age of twenty-five, she began a career as a civil rights activist when she joined the National Council of Negro Women. She fought for equal rights for both African Americans and women, and in 1944 she joined the national staff of the YWCA. . . . In 1957, Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held until 1997. During the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Height organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi” . . . which brought together black and white women from the North and South to create a dialogue of understanding.

American leaders regularly took her counsel, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Height also encouraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African American women to positions in government. In the mid 1960s, Height wrote a column entitled “A Woman’s Word” for the weekly African-American newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News.

She will be greatly missed.

Civil Rights Leader Benjamin Hooks Has Died

NPR has this important story today on one of the premier leaders of U.S. civil rights struggles, Benjamin L. Hooks (1925-2010):

Benjamin L. Hooks, a champion of minorities and the poor who as executive director of the NAACP increased the group’s stature. . . . “I don’t know anybody who lived a more triumphant life,” former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young told NPR. … Hooks became [NAACP] executive director in 1977, taking over a group that was $1 million in debt and had shrunk to 200,000 members. … He pledged to increase enrollment and raise money for the organization. . . . “If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again,” he said. “If anyone thinks that we are going to stop litigating, they had better close the courts. If anyone thinks that we are not going to demonstrate and protest, they had better roll up the sidewalks.”

Hooks view of the current scene resonates well with the need for much more civil rights organization:

“Now, the fight is not over water fountains, it’s not over riding the bus, it’s over who’s going to drive that bus,” he said. “Now, once we start digging into these economic issues, resistance may grow.”

He was a path breaker in his own life:

In 1965 he was appointed to a newly created seat on the Tennessee Criminal Court, making him the first black judge since Reconstruction in a state trial court anywhere in the South. … nominated Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission in 1972. He was its first black commissioner, serving for five years before resigning to lead the NAACP. … Hooks also created an initiative that expanded employment opportunities for blacks in Major League Baseball and launched a program where corporations participated in economic development projects in black communities.

The NAACP has continued to be a source of white supremacist attacks since the 1960s:

In 1989, a string of gasoline bomb attacks in the South killed a federal judge in Alabama and a black civil rights lawyer in Savannah, Ga. Another bomb was intercepted at an NAACP office in Jacksonville, Fla., and an Atlanta television station received a letter threatening more attacks on judges, attorneys and NAACP leaders. “We believe that this latest incident is an effort to intimidate our association, to strike fear in our hearts,” Hooks said at the time. “It will not succeed. We intend to go about our business.”