Like her friend Gabby Giffords and like her former colleague, the late Judge Roll, Isabel Garcia has known the hatred that can kill. Garcia, a Pima County public defender and outspoken immigrant rights activist, was shocked and moved by Saturday’s shooting near the Safeway on Tucson’s palm tree and mesquite-studded northside. But she was not surprised at the slaughter of so many innocents.
“I’m praying for Gabby and the other victims. This is very sad,” she told me when I called her recently. “It makes me very sad knowing that there are lots of people in Tucson capable of doing these things, lots of people with guns and hatred” she said, adding “It makes you even sadder that we couldn’t do anything to prevent it.”
Her positions in defense of immigrants makes her a favorite target of Tucson’s radio shock jocks and local Republicans — and Democrats — whose rhetoric and denunciations fueled, she believes, the numerous death threats that she herself has received. “Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before things blew up even more. The anger and fear have become ‘normal’ here.”
Garcia’s insights and concerns about the larger culture of fear and violence spinning out of control in Tucson are shared by many from among the group that, according to FBI hate crime statistics, is most targeted by that fear and violence throughout Arizona and the entire country: Latinos. Latinos have a very particular response to these developments; we understand how extremist groups and right wing think tanks, well-heeled foundations and Tea Party activists have turned Arizona into the largest laboratory for mainstreaming the extreme in the United States. As much as any group, Latinas like Garcia understand that it’s not just the “deranged”, “lone gunmen” and “mentally ill” we must be weary of; we understand that Jared Loughner acted within and drew from a political and cultural climate increasingly prone to fear, hatred and violence. We understand that that the Tucson tragedy means we have reached the limits of the “normal.”
The killing of nine year-old Christina-Taylor Green, for example, surely stirs memories among many of us of the trauma-inducing murder of another nine-year-old local, Brisenia Flores. Flores was killed by a woman affiliated with organizations designated hate groups, groups like the Federation of Immigration Reform whose smart-suited, rational-sounding spokespeople are regularly sought out by national media outlets as “experts on immigration.” Rather than simply watch as entertainment the doings of Joe Arpaio, “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” on network newscasts and syndicated television shows, our first response is to ask, “‘tough’ on who?” Though some of us recognize the inherent racism of referring to the Grand Canyon state as a “a mecca for racism and bigotry” (ie; we wouldn’t call Arizona a “Jerusalem of hatred”), we understand the reality behind controversial Sheriff Dupnik’s statement.
Until Saturday’s attack on Giffords and her followers at a political event, the primary political issue heating up the headlines, classrooms and streets of Tucson since I visited there several months ago has been the ban on Latinos learning about their history and culture in ethnic studies classes. Latinos studying themselves means they’re not “normal.” Attacking Latinos for studying themselves is. It can even get you elected to high office. And prior to the ethnic studies ban, both the state political process and much of the country’s body politic were politically and physically (i.e. a Latino man in Phoenix was killed in a racist attack by his white neighbor in one of several largely unreported hate crimes) clashing around SB-1070, Arizona’s racial profiling law.
While many of us will join Daniel Hernandez and President Obama in their call for civil discourse, we will do so without losing sight of the fact that, for disconcerting numbers of “regular Americans”, hate and fear are the new normal. That Senate President Russell Pearce, the author of SB-1070 and one of Arizona’s most powerful politicians, sat in solemn attendance at the memorial was duly noted by many. But his attendance and the calls for “civil discourse” will not, should not erase less-publicized knowledge of the fact that Pearce has ties to the Neo-Nazi extremist groups whose members he has praised and whose rallies he has attended.
To many of us, the “deranged lone gunmen” on the desert fringe can sometimes bear more than a passing resemblance to the God-fearing, gun-wielding patriot filling our cities and suburbs; we see how the “rugged individualism” of a previous era is being hijacked by powerful interests. As I watch reports of the shooting, I remember the death threats from white men with guns who didn’t like my work defending immigrants and others.
So, when we read that the Department of Homeland Security suspects that Jared Loughner is “possibly connected” to American Renaissance, one of Arizona’s many and growing racist, anti-immigrant groups, many of us see someone who, deranged or not, draws from the deep wells of verbal, visual and physical violence in the substratum of US civilization. We agree with scholars like Richard Florida who understand Tucson’s troubles as reflective of how “deep seated regional and cultural factors play a substantial role in mass violence.”
And like Garcia and the national hero of the moment, Daniel Hernandez, many of us will look at the blood-splattered abyss on the street near Safeway and act decisively to find a newer, truly safer way to deal with these influences on Jared Loughner and other, more “normal” people, people carrying unconcealed guns on their waists and increasingly normalized hatred in their hearts.