Allegory of Terror: MIA’s Born Free and the Arizona Anti-Immigration Law

Nicholas Powers May 23, 2010

You hear a loud crash and screams. Boots stomp up the stairs and the door is kicked down. Storm-troopers in black riot gear like giant shiny beetles drag you into the hall, down the stairs to the street and throw you into a bus. Panting, you sit. Around you pale skin – red haired men stare out of windows as the bus roars through the streets, teens throw bottles at the bus and one pumps his fist in the air. Floating in nausea, you don’t see the bus pulling off the road into a desert. The cops push you into a line. A storm-trooper points across the field and yells at everyone to run but terror paralyzes your legs. He aims his gun at the boy next to you and shoots his brains on your shirt. And you run, odd how you never felt this light before. Land-mines explode around you popping your ears but you’re barely touching the ground, weightless running, thinking I won’t hit one as a deafening boom propels you upward into the sky of silent oblivion.

This is British song-writer MIA’s new music-video Born Free, directed by Romain Gavras who has worked with DJ Mehdi and the electro band Justice. Gavras riffs on the 1971 film Punishment Park in which President Nixon declares a state of emergency as security forces round up Civil Rights activists, feminists and anti-war protestors. After a show-trial, the cops take them to the desert and kill the dissidents one by one, badges flashing like steel hearts.

Gavras and MIA chose Punishment Park as a template to dramatize the violence implicit in Conservative ideology, a world view that sees change as a threat to tradition and will use force to stop it. Three days before MIA’s music-video was released, life caught up with art as a new immigration law was passed that edged America one step closer to the violence in Born Free.

On April 23rd, Arizona Governor Jan Brower signed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act known as SB 1070.  The bill forces Arizona police, under threat of lawsuit, to check the legal status of anyone of whom they have a “reasonable suspicion.” After a national outcry it was tempered by House Bill 2162, so police can only check during “lawful stop, detention or arrest.”

Imagine you’re Mexican-American in Arizona, playing soccer in the park, after the game you drink with friends and stumble home. The street is empty and you cross it. A police car flashes lights in your face. An officer gets out and walks up to you. He’s tall, hard-faced and announces you’ve jaywalked and needs to see your papers. A hot fury rises in your chest. You stiffen so as not to seem drunk and show him your driver’s license. He hands it back saying you can go and you do, back home, sober with fear. You think of mom. She’s undocumented, has been for years. She’s has good fake papers but not her nephew, he’s new and looking for work. If he’s caught by Robocop here, he’s gone. Everyone is scared. People are hiding.

This is the Terror that has begun for the 1,785,737 Mexican-Americans and the 460,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona. Along with them are the thousands who look Mexican. But why? Illegal immigrants work in near invisibility. They commit crimes less than citizens. They are more socially conservative. Why are they being attacked? What do they stand for in the Conservative Mind?

Cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek wrote in The Plague of Fantasies, “Ideology has to rely on some phantasmic background. The original question of desire is not ‘what do I want’ but ‘what do others want of me’. Fantasy tells me what I am to my others.” If he is right, we believe in ideology not for its truth-value but because it gives us a role to play, a scene to be recognized and valued.

In Conservative ideology that primal scene is a fear of loss. The Right-Wing American Fantasy is the Founding Fathers cleared a Land of Oppurtunity from sea to shining sea and built a City on a Hill. We inherited the keys to the kingdom but the natives are on the warpath. We must circle the wagons, lock and load because the only good Indian is a dead Indian.

In the Conservative Mind the foreigner, the racial Other must always be a danger because Conservatives must come to the rescue, so their rage can be seen as a noble crusade. Whether on former Lou Dobbs Show or on Fox’s Bill O’ Reilly the illegal Mexican immigrant is repeatedly cast to play the villain.

It’s why Texas Congressmen Republican Ted Poe said on The Glen Beck Show, “Mexico is colonizing the United States…part of the problem with illegals who come into the United States, there are not immigrants in the sense that they want to become Americans, they want to stay Mexicans, they are loyal to that government, so loyal that they send their money back. They are not part of this nation.”

It’s why Klansman and former Louisiana State Rep. David Duke said in a video to the Tea Party “nations are the product of particular peoples…and too much diversity…leads to hatred, violence and war.” He called for troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan to guard the U.S. Mexican border to “preserve our heritage.”

For the racist mind the human body is not a blank page written on by history but carries a specific culture within it like a seed. A white supremacist, refined or vulgar sees brown people as deadly pollen that must be quarantined before they take root and grow and destroy the House Father Built. Pruning the dark population becomes a necessary police action.

In this ideological fantasy, Mexicans are such a threat that the reasons they leave their homes becomes invisible. We see President Clinton sign NAFTA to end tariffs and let goods flow over borders but not the two million Mexican farmers made homeless by cheap U.S. subsidized food; they are invisible. We see a Wall-Mart store in Mexico City but not the unemployed Mexican workers whose factories were shut; they are invisible. And driven by hunger and fear are the 1,954 migrants who stumbled dizzy through the desert, prayed through dry swollen lips and froze to death like stones in the night, who drowned in canals, who tumbled inside cars crashing on the road or were hit by trucks when crossing a dark highway, who died alone in the land between home and exile; they are invisible to.

Against this backdrop of the City on a Hill under siege from foreigners, the murder of grandfatherly white rancher Robert Krentz became a war-cry for Conservatives. On March 27th, Krentz radioed his brother, “I see an immigrant out here, and he appears to need help.” Then silence. He was found in the dirt, riddled with bullets and the killer’s footprints leading to the border. It’s assumed an illegal migrant killed him. His murder is magnified by conservative ideology into casualty of war even if crime-rates in Arizona are the lowest in four decades.

The fever is catching. Michigan State Rep. Kim Meltzer said, “I have received calls…asking me to introduce legislation similar to the new Arizona Immigration Law. It just makes sense for Michigan, with all of its national boundaries, to enact similar security for our citizens.”

In Oklahoma, State Rep. Randy Terrill authored the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act or HB 1804. In November 2007 it was signed into law, preventing the state from giving healthcare and education to illegal immigrants, even infants. Now Terrill promises a new bill to seize the cars of “illegals” and strip children of illegal migrants of citizenship, even if born here.

It’s a self-righteous fury out there in the American Heartland, a wild red, white and blue tornado that rips families apart, flings undocumented parents across the border and scatters the poor. And it has professional apologists. On the Sunday talk show This Week, George Will made a snobbish plea that Arizona’s SB 1070 only reinforces federal law, specifically the 1940 Smith Act.  He said not to worry about racial profiling because “law enforcement officials make these decisions everyday” and we can trust their judgment.

Being a Conservative, he is nostalgic for faith in power but refuses to hear the screams echoing through American history.

For five days in July 1997, in the boiling Arizona summer local and federal officers rode their bikes through the town of Chandler in Operation Restoration. They asked anyone who looked Mexican for their papers and citizens were arrested along with illegal immigrants.

San Diego’s 1994 Operation Gate Keeper began when Attorney General Janet Reno stood at the border and saw hundreds of Mexicans sitting in a field, waiting for nightfall to sprint across the border, bags jangling in their hands. A plan was concocted. Instead of rounding up “illegals”, border-agents manned fixed positions to be seen and deter. Many complained it was bullshit political theater.

It wasn’t like the good old days of 1954 when President Eisenhower began Operation Wetback.  He sent 1075 border-patrol agents into the streets of California and Arizona. They swept Mexican-American neighborhoods, stopped “Mexican-looking” people in the street, checked for papers and arrested whole families. They packed them in boats and sailed them 1,000 miles deep into Mexico so they could not afford the long trip back. On one boat, stirred by rage or grief seven men jumped into the sea and drowned themselves. After a public outcry in Mexico the program was ended.

Eleven years before Operation Wetback were the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. In Los Angeles young Mexican-Americans flouted slicked back hair, long coats and baggy pants and bumped shoulders with tense white soldiers on leave. Each glare was a heat ray. Each curse a spark.

In the Mexican men boiled the memory of land stolen, insults swallowed, women shamed and children left hungry. One night sailors were talking to women, Zoot Suiters punked them, a fight became a riot and then a miniature race war. White soldiers and sailors roamed the streets, faces flushed red, whooping as they stripped Latinos of their suits and pummeled them into the sidewalk.

All this during the Bracero Program; the U.S. invited Mexicans to fill the labor shortage during World War Two. Thousands came to pound rail-tracks in place, pick sugar beets and in a cruel irony, replace two million Mexican workers who were chased out during the Great Depression. For decades, Mexicans were welcomed in the U.S. to work the fields and factories but when the stock market crashed in 1929 and those factories closed, grizzled white men haunted the street. They hated immigrants who they believed were stealing work.

During the Great Depression, President Hoover enacted the Mexican Reparation Program and from 1929 to 1939 police round-up illegal migrants but on the street any Mexican would do. They kicked in doors, pointed guns at families, herded them on trains. The Terror emptied whole neighborhoods. Most who left were citizens but it didn’t matter because as George Clements, Manager of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce wrote to his boss, “Employ no Mexican while a white man is unemployed.”

And this is our history. Mexicans have been welcomed when cheap labor was needed, chased when jobs were scarce. Again we are in a recession and again they are targeted as thieves of the American Dream.

Each of these mass round-ups and deportations began from the belief in our entitlement. Long before we owned both coasts, President Polk eyed the San Francisco bay, the lush greenery of California and used the romantic call of Manifest Destiny to justify the U.S. – Mexican War of 1846. Little known Illionios State Representative Abraham Lincoln said in his 1848 speech that greed caused the war but was obscured by “fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory – that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.”

Mexico lost and the U.S. took land that became Texas, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona. America wanted the land but not the people who lived on it. Manifest Destiny meant the Anglo-Saxon race was to conquer and create a nation that spanned from “sea to shining sea” not share it with Mestizos. Artist John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress showed the essence of the era with its horse-pulled wagons rolling across sun-burnt tundra as homesteaders moved West and a white angel floated above them.

And we still live in that world. According to polls, a majority of Americans believe in angels so maybe they’ll see the Mexican dead rising up from the desert, driven haunted spirits thirsting for water, for shade, for justice.

And if we can’t see that maybe we can see that the U.S. – Mexican war never ended. We wage war on Mexicans, legal or illegal, American or immigrant. We profile brown bodies as not belonging here. If they sing the national anthem in Spanish, we condemn it. If they march for rights, coverage is censored. If we exploit them in Mexico and they sneak into the U.S. for work they are criminals for wanting to live.

It doesn’t have to be like this. A Global Green Deal could create national industries employing millions of people rather than financial speculation creating millions of dollars for Wall Street gamblers. A Global Living Wage would mean Mexicans not dying in the desert. A Global Repeal that legalizes drug use would mean violent cartels could be replaced by coffee shops. Amnesty for the 12 million undocumented workers here would mean families living without fear.

It would mean my ex-roommate would not have had to sit on my sofa, eyes shiny, hands rubbing nervously and tell me that he over-stayed his visa. I remember how his voice shook.

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