African Americans Raise Voices Against Arizona Law

African Americans Raise Voices Against Arizona Law

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The groundswell against the unpopular Senate Bill 1070 increased to a fever pitch last week with community meetings and demonstrations to denounce the controversial Arizona law. Response to the state legislation, including a march on the state Capitol on Wednesday, has made one thing evident for Valley Hispanics opposing the law—they do not stand alone.

A prayer meeting and rally took place before the May 5 march at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. Faith leaders from houses of worship all across the Valley came out in force to show disapproval for the law, including the Arizona Ecumenical Council.

“Whenever there are laws that allow people to be discriminated against, I believe God stands in opposition to that law,” declared Bishop Alexis Thomas of Pilgrim Rest. “To our Latino brothers and sisters, this is not your fight—this is our fight.”

The rally also provided a forum for an impressive array of community organizations on hand to denounce SB 1070. Union leaders, a nonprofit coalition which included Chicanos Por La Causa, and several city officials shared disapproval and calls for action, while volunteers collected signed petitions and letters to the Oval Office.

The Reverend Al Sharpton delivered a stirring call to rally supporters, and marched on the capital with thousands of demonstrators.

“It is racial profiling, no matter how you cut it,” Reverend Sharpton stated. He also said that the law “robs the rights of legal citizens of Latino descent” despite that many have “fought wars and built schools” for their country.

“Now you want to pull them over on the side of the road and treat them like second class citizens?” he asked. Sharpton also reemphasized that he did not support the protest solely because racial profiling might occur amongst African Americans in Arizona as a result. “If you open the door to a double standard for anybody, you open the door to a double standard for everybody.”

Councilman Michael Johnson captured the sentiment of the many local groups concerned about how SB 1070 may be put into practice and potentially abused. “This isn't just about immigration, it’s about freedom, it’s about justice, it’s about hope.”

Johnson is a veteran of the Phoenix Police Department who was subjected to excessive force by Phoenix police outside of his home in March.

“This isn't just about immigrants being taken off the street—it’s about 'who's next?' I tell you...if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

The march itself stretched for blocks through downtown Phoenix with a heavy police presence, halting
periodically to allow the light rail to pass safely. The peaceful demonstration mirrored the preceding rally, not only with its high energy, but through refreshing instances of Valley residents dismissing racial boundaries in support of a common cause.

Families made up a significant portion of the march, whether infants in strollers, wide-eyed toddlers or cell-phone toting teenagers. Mexican colors assuredly peeked from the crowd at regular intervals, but the majority of flags proudly waving from brown hands were red, white and blue.

The peculiar and rich stew that is American culture was on full display for the entire route, nearly three miles through the heart of Phoenix. Marchers belted out, “Obama, escucha estamos en la lucha!”, among other chants, and welcomed the added voices of whites, Asians, Native and African Americans in visible but no less energized pockets of supporters. Bells ringing from ice cream street carts mingled with whistles and drums—the overpass near the Arizona Science Center on Fifth Street offered a particularly deafening stretch of marching.

Messages on shirts and signs read “Am I Illegal?” and “Being Hispanic is Not A Crime.” Young men walked tall, some draped in American flags over anti Joe Arpaio t-shirts, or carrying spray painted banners of Aztec sun stones and wearing Phoenix Suns gear.

The Phoenix Suns sported controversial “Los Suns” jerseys during their victory Wednesday night at US Airways Center, (see Steve Nash's comments on the bill here.) Cries of “Lets Go Suns!” swelled among the rally chants as city workers and Fed-Ex employees watched from the sidewalk with camera phones, cheering marchers on.

President Obama added his voice to national displeasure over the law from a Cinco de Mayo reception at the Rose Garden. “Make no mistake, our immigration system is broken ... but we can’t start singling out people because of who they look like, or how they talk, or how they dress. We can’t turn law-abiding American citizens—and law-abiding immigrants—into subjects of suspicion and abuse. We can’t divide the American people that way. That’s not the answer. That’s not who we are as the United States of America.”

Joy Clayton is the owner of Bobby C's Lounge and Grille, a longtime favorite haunt in the Valley among African Americans. Patrons and workers at the establishment gathered outside to cheer while the protest streamed right past the downtown Phoenix restaurant's front door.

“Many of us were thinking this is just a Hispanic issue, Mexicans coming across the border, and it’s not,” she says.

Clayton herself attended the rally and march, which she feels gave her a much better understanding of the issues at stake.

“This is about everybody. Indiscriminate stopping will lend itself to various, serious problems that will affect all of us,” Clayton stated.

As Senate Bill 1070 continues to invoke sustained local protests and growing national outrage, a pivotal question arises: How long will Arizona legislators—such as Senator Russell Pearce—insist upon pushing such divisive measures?

Several national organizations have already chosen to move annual conferences—and revenue—out of state. With calls to boycott the 2011 MLB All Star game in Phoenix, and Luke's Air Force Base still lobbying for the F-35 Joint Strike Program, time will tell how deep SB 1070's claws are allowed to dig.