Nativism and Fascism: The Meaning of Anti-Immigrant Protests

June 15, 2010 by Guest Blogger
Filed under: Immigration, Politics 
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By Joel Olson

I didn’t go to the pro-SB 1070 rally on the lawn of the Arizona capitol this weekend, even though I was in Phoenix. (I live in Flagstaff, about two hours north.) It was a rare beautiful day in June and the grandparents had the kids, so we went to dinner and a movie instead.

It’s really not necessary to attend these sorts of events, at least not if you’ve been to them before. It’s basically the same cast of white folk and their politicians. The crowd consists of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, “patriots” drenched in red/white/blue, and a good number of grandparents who no doubt are otherwise fine people, but whose humanity has been turned inside out by their fear of brown people. The numbers are typically thin—just a few hundred attended rallies on June 5 and June 12. (Even the organizers’ Facebook page admits the June 12 rally was “modestly attended.”) The speakers include nativist politicians such as State Senator Russell Pearce (author of SB 1070), Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Tom Tancredo, as well as a few speakers of color to prove that no one there is racist. The music is bad and the chants are lame. (For those of you who still feel the need to see for yourself, Phoenix immigrant rights activist and filmmaker Dennis Gilman’s latest video on the June 5 nativist rally captures the scene well.)

But just because I chose to chill with my baby instead of scuffle with the nativists doesn’t mean I take this movement lightly. I don’t. And just because there are more people in Phoenix wearing long underwear in June than attending these rallies doesn’t mean the movement is weak. In fact, I fear it means just the opposite. After all, why do you need to protest when you’re in power?

True, the hard-core anti-immigrant movement is divided internally, and that’s usually a sign of weakness. (That’s why there were two rallies in two weekends.) The nativists just won’t play nice with each other. Imagine 2050 has covered the bloodletting among them well and there’s no need for me to repeat it.

But internal splits don’t explain the poor attendance at these rallies. Rather, I’m afraid that the teeny tiny turnouts are a sign of the strength of the nativist movement in Arizona. After all, when the Governor, both U.S. Senators, the most powerful state legislators, the most powerful sheriff, and over half of the voting public supports SB 1070, why protest? In this environment, only the most fervent nativist feels the need to brave an Arizona summer day to decry the “invasion of illegals.” The rest just go to the polls.

The nativist movement in Arizona does not need street politics because it is currently served well by the channels of official power. But that will change as the movement against nativism grows. As those of us fighting for the right of all people to live, love, and work wherever they please win more victories—such as the Flagstaff and Tucson City Councils’ decision to sue the state to prevent SB 1070 from going into effect—the nativists will get angrier. They will begin to feel like their usual avenues of influence—the Republican Party, the state legislature, the governor’s office—have betrayed them. They will become more strident in their attacks against “illegals.” They will become more explicitly racist. They will wear more Nazi regalia. They will come armed to rallies. They will become more explicitly extra-constitutional—calling for armed neighborhood patrols against “illegals,” the repeal of birthright citizenship, and the forcible removal of “illegals” from public schools and hospitals.

In other words, they’ll start talking and behaving exactly like the participants at the June 5 and 12 rallies—but on steroids.

The hard core of the nativist movement in Arizona is small now because nativist sentiment is so strong here that it shapes politics as usual. But the hard core wants more than mainstream nativism is currently able to provide. When the mainstream fails to deliver on the most heinous nativist measures, and as the migrant rights movement achieves more victories, the hard core will get more belligerent, and some politicians will seek to appease them (such as Senator “law and order” Pearce, as this interview shows). They will blame the courts and the federal government for “coddling illegals” and “stripping away” the rights of citizens. They will seriously debate whether to welcome explicit white supremacists into their ranks. And then someone will decide it’s time to “take action,” and we’ll be looking at Waco or Ruby Ridge all over again.

The hard-core nativists form the basis of a potentially fascist movement in the United States. They are currently small but they are determined, and they have friends in power. They may not remain small.

The organization I am part of, the Repeal Coalition, doesn’t directly fight the nativists. Rather, we seek to out-organize them by building our own fighting movement, one that challenges the nativists’ program of hate, harass and blame with one that asserts the freedom to live, love, and work wherever you please. We are competing with the nativists for the hearts and minds of Arizonans, including white Arizonans who currently see migrant workers as enemies rather than allies. It is our hope that by creating a true alternative to quasi-fascist anti-immigrant politics, we can win the day in Arizona.

I think we will win the day. But we’d better get moving, or the next nativist rally might be packed with people in brown shirts calling for the heads of people with brown skin.

Joel Olson is a member of the Repeal Coalition in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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