Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mike Davis Speaks on the San Diego Fires

ISO Event Also Features Enrique Morones, Justin Akers Chacón


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Mike Davis, Justin Akers Chacón, Enrique Morones

The community response to the recent wildfires in San Diego County is being hailed by Republican and Right-wing propagandists as the “good” way to respond to a natural disaster — as opposed to the responses of Louisiana’s Democratic governor and New Orleans’ Democratic mayor to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Author and professor Mike Davis — one of whose previous books, Ecology of Fear, dealt with natural disasters and how the threats of earthquakes and fires have shaped the experience of living in Southern California — came to the City Heights Recreation Center November 1 in an event sponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) to debunk this rapidly spreading myth. He also spoke out about the undocumented immigrants that were the truly forgotten victims of the fires.

“The most heartbreaking sign I’ve ever seen in California is near the fire-scarred Otay Mountain,” Davis said. “It’s a simple, chilling image of a family fleeing flames. Anyone seeing it would understand what it meant. Otay and Tecate offer protection to many protected species, but the fires have made it difficult to appreciate its natural beauty. Doghouse Junction [where the sign stood] looks like a NATO weapons test site. You occasionally see National Guard vehicles and always see Border Patrol SUV’s. Twenty miles east is the training camp in which Navy SEAL’s practice to go to Afghanistan because the terrain is considered similar. This has become the back door from Tijuana to San Diego since Operation Gatekeeper [the heavy-duty ‘enforcement’ action against undocumented immigration ordered by the Clinton administration in 1994] and Bush’s new Berlin Wall across the border.”

Davis described “the real choice” migrants faced during the fire as “between furnace and labyrinth.” He explained that, rather than try to chase migrants through the maze of canyons at the border, immigration agents “just wait for the migrants to emerge” and then seize them and send them back. “Scores of immigrants have died in recent years from falls, dehydration and exhaustion, snowstorms” — yes, some of those mountains are high enough that there is snow on them — “ and murder, but the most frightening death is by wildfires.” Davis said that the mountains on the border are “highly combustible,” and that Otay was “scourged” by San Diego’s last big wildfires four years ago — but the 2003 fires at least “spared the terrain to the East Tecate Peak and Potrero.”

This time, he added, those areas weren’t so lucky. “On Sunday, October 21, exactly as predicted by most meteorologists, gale-force Santa Ana winds produced an almost exact reprise. From most newsrooms, only the celebrity estates of Malibu and the evacuations of rich, mostly Republican people from North County, were deemed worthy of coverage. The Harris fire” — the one in South County, in Potrero and on the border — “only received end-of-story mention, especially when it approached the rich community that replaced the San Miguel Ranch. Yet the greatest and most excruciating human tragedy took place on Sunday, when the San Diego customs post and a few homes on this side of Tecate were destroyed. Immigrant people were forced to run for their lives, and one was killed saving his teenage son.”

According to Davis, the relatively optimistic media reports which said the death toll from the fires was as low as one and not more than 12 were possible only because the local media were treating undocumented immigrants as “unpersons” and not bothering to find out what had happened to them. “At Bear Point on Highway 94 the fire overwhelmed either a migrant camp or a group of immigrants trying to cross the border,” he said. “Eleven immigrants are in the UCSD Burn Ward” — a story which provoked the San Diego Union-Tribune to write a scare headline proclaiming that 11 of the 18 patients in that ward due to injuries in the big fires were “illegals” — “and four are in critical condition. On Thursday, Border Patrol agents found four chard bodies, either there or closer to Dulzura, and the remains of more victims may be discovered.”

Davis said that the destruction of some of the Border Patrol’s own posts “signaled a red alert” and led to reinforcements from the National Guard and other Border Patrol agents from elsewhere. He said there’d been a mass arrest and deportation of at least 200 people in the middle of the fires — but the English-language media in the area didn’t report this, although the Spanish-language media did. What’s more, Davis added, the relief effort quickly acquired a second purpose: to apprehend and get rid of as many undocumented immigrants as possible. “Immigration agents became conspicuous at the fire checkpoints,” Davis said, adding that their presence emptied out the canyons in Encinitas and Carlsbad where migrant farmworkers and day laborers had previously lived.

According to Davis, the fires “achieved the ethnic cleansing San Diego nativists have been clamoring for for so long.” He cited a report in the Mexican daily La Opinion that families working as farmworkers in fire-threatened areas in North County ‘were not only not evacuated, but were forced to continue picking,” despite being in danger not only from the fires themselves but from inhaling the thick, heavy smoke. “You have 100 immigrants killed, four close to death, hundreds injured or arrested, and several thousands driven from their homes,” Davis said. “How has it been reported by the local media?”

In the San Diego Union-Tribune, Davis said, the reporting consisted of scare headlines like, “Criminals Use Fires to Their Own Advantage” — the same lies that had been told about lower-income victims during Katrina. According to Davis, Chet Barfield, who wrote that story, relied exclusively on e-mails sent to the Union-Tribune and “the claim of one U-T reporter that her own home had been burglarized.” Davis said the paper went ahead with the story, including a claim in its last paragraph that people had been “caught stealing,” even though a spokesperson for the San Diego Police Department said “there had been no reports of burglaries, and there had been only five arrests for minor crimes.” Davis added that the U-T and the local TV stations “gave large quantities of gas to Internet arsonists” — meaning the Right-wing bloggers who used the fires as an excuse to bash undocumented immigrants and people of color generally — “with these wildly inaccurate reports of Latinos looking Qualcomm Stadium.”

Within a week, Davis said, the U-T was starting to backtrack on those claims. He mentioned the article by U-T editorial page editor Bob Kittle on October 27 calling the events at Qualcomm “a muddle” and admitting “that no one knew whether any ‘illegals’ had looted or started the fires. But if Kittle had doubts, the U-T had no doubts about the issue and claimed that the Mexican government should pay for treatment of any of the people injured by the fire ‘who had no business being here.’” Davis said that the Union-Tribune’s coverage of the fires “shows the real nature of the ‘traditional values’ the U-T supports: bigotry and rage that glues together Republican ideologues from Rancho Santa Fe to the White House.”

San Diego ISO member Justin Akers Chacón, who has collaborated with Davis on a book about immigration called No One Is Illegal, followed him with a speech that began, “The heavy hand of the new Jim Crow was very much over San Diego throughout this whole evacuation. We’ve been living through the age of neo-liberalism, where we’re killing off the social safety net, redistributing income to the rich and redistributing resources to the wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and immigrants here at home. There’s an endless amount of money for war and repression, but when we ask for fire prevention the cupboard is dry. We spend more on border protection than Great Britain spends on their entire military.”

Akers Chacón pointed out that during the fires, county sheriff Bill Kolender set up checkpoints at the evacuation zones and also at the fire-ravaged areas themselves, where individuals passing through were required to show I.D. — thereby enabling sheriff’s deputies to identify undocumented immigrants, detain them and turn them over to the Border Patrol for deportation. “All shelters and evacuation centers required I.D.’s before people could receive food aid,” he said. “We had the militarization of evacuation.” According to Akers Chacón, families without identification “were ejected from Qualcomm, sometimes rousted in the middle of the night, or were prevented from going in in the first place.” He added that some families slept in their cars in the Qualcomm parking lot rather than daring to enter the stadium and risking apprehension and deportation. “People were treated as less than human if they didn’t speak English.”

The institutionalized racism of the “official” evacuation and shelter operation “stands in sharp contrast to the way the Latino community came together, including the relief efforts at Chicano Park,” Akers Chacón said. “While people [in North County and at Qualcomm] were being persecuted for being Latino or not speaking English, and being deported, people in Barrio Logan decided to set up their own station for collecting and distributing food aid. They decided to distribute it themselves, without regard to nationality or ethnicity. Many undocumented people brought what they had. This tremendous act of solidarity inspired everyone who participated.”

Unfortunately, Akers Chacón added, “it also inspired the Minutemen,” the anti-immigrant vigilantes who have plagued San Diego County and other border regions for at least the last two years. He said the Minutemen “attacked us because we didn’t fit the ‘criminal’ stereotype.” Instead of protecting the relief effort or at least remaining neutral, the local police “took pictures of me, and under their watchful eye the Minutemen patrolled and accused the people distributing the supplies of having looted them.”

Another story Akers Chacón told that hadn’t been reported in the local mainstream media was that the government of Mexico was directly involved in helping fight the fires. “Mexico sent several fire engines and crews, and sent emergency energy after the fires cut power links between California and Arizona,” he said. “The official in Tecate said, ‘It’s important for Mexico and the United States to cooperate, because we live together.’”

According to Akers Chacón, “This fire has brought us together as a community and shown how our struggles are linked: bring the money home and bring the National Guard home. [It’s been estimated that as much as one-third of the National Guard members are unavailable for emergency relief in their communities because they’re fighting the war in Iraq.] We have to continue to organize against neo-liberalism and for the full and unconditional legalization of all undocumented immigrants, so they don’t have to face this in the future.”

Davis, returning briefly to the podium after Akers Chacón finished, addressed the announced theme of the meeting: the alleged contrast Republican propagandists are making between San Diego’s response to the fires and that of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina. “You’ve heard over and over again, ‘The system works. Our values are different. It’s suburban solidarity,’” Davis said. “They’re telling us San Diego is the anti-Katrina.” Davis noted that a Right-wing Republican had just won the governorship of Louisiana largely because so many Democratic voters, many of them African-Americans, have been driven from the state due to the failure to rebuild. (A recent estimate said the population of New Orleans is still only two-thirds its pre-Katrina size.) “We have a special responsibility to ensure that New Orleans is not forgotten,” Davis said.

Whereas in Louisiana the disaster was used to drive out the Black voters that had kept Democrats in control of the state government and push the state in the same Republican direction as the rest of the modern South, Davis said that in San Diego the fires are “being used as an election rally: if the ‘illegals’ didn’t set it, [city attorney] Mike Aguirre did. Mayor Jerry Sanders is being portrayed as a ‘rock,’ but can anybody tell me exactly what he was doing during the 10 days of the crisis?”

After Davis spoke, there was a surprise visitor: Enrique Morones, founder of the Border Angels group (which leaves water, food and supplies in the desert for use by undocumented immigrants) and someone regularly demonized by local talk-radio host Roger Hedgecock as “Moron” for having led protests against the statue of former San Diego Mayor and California Governir Pete Wilson in Horton Plaza. Hedgecock, who had said on his show that the authorities at Qualcomm were right to turn away Latinos because “we” had set up that shelter to help people who’d lost their homes in the fire, had told a highly colorful story in which Morones confronted California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and demanded that he sign a bill to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants — and that Schwarzenegger had muttered to him that that would never happen as long as he was governor.

Morones got to give his own version of his meeting with Schwarzenegger at the ISO meeting in City Heights. He said that Schwarzenegger showed up just as he was about to do an interview with National Public Radio, and when he saw Schwarzenegger come in he told the NPR reporter, “We can do the interview later. I want to talk to the Governor.” When the first question at the joint press conference of Schwarzenegger, Sheriff Kolender, Mayor Sanders and San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne was “a softball from the Union-Tribune” on how well San Diego was coming together to handle the fires, “I interrupted and said, ‘Which San Diego is that? Because the San Diego I and many other people in this room live in has not been tended to.’ When the 911 calls went out, the rich people in Rancho Peñasquitos were driving away in Jaguars and Mercedes, our brothers and sisters were still picking tomatoes. There was no evacuation for the people in the fields. Nobody went out there to tell them the fires were coming. They continued to work.”

According to Morones, Governor Schwarzenegger and the local officials “were very upset, because I blew their little party apart. Bill Kolender said, ‘We’ve been in those fields, and they evacuated right away.’ I said, ‘You’re a liar. You have not been in those fields.’” Having been told at the press conference that the farmworkers didn’t need to be evacuated because they could have “voluntarily” left the fields at any time — a claim Morones found “outrageous” because nobody who had taken so many risks to cross the border in the first place would “voluntarily” leave a job site and risk becoming unemployed and unemployable — Morones said he added, “If they do happen to try to leave, there’s going to be a checkpoint, they’re going to be asked for their documents, but they’re not going to have documents because you, Governor, will not give them driver’s licenses.”

Morones called San Diego’s response to the fires “a tremendous injustice. The whole world is watching us, and we’re failing. We’re failing as a people. And the person who’s going to make a difference is not going to be that hero you think you see on TV, it’s going to be the person you see in the mirror every morning.”