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.