Police Violence, Farmworkers, and Urban Latinos in Southern Arizona

By Gregory Lella, History

Most literature examining how the state criminalizes and punishes Latinidad has focused on urban policing, and that literature itself is often overly focused on California. While there have been a few very fruitful attempts to explore policing at the border and in agricultural communities (though also with a strong focus on California and Texas), there have been few, if any, attempts to compare how the state policed urban Latinos with how it policed Latino farmworkers. Thanks to funding from the Center for the Studies of Inequalities, Social Justice, and Policy, I traveled to Arizona where I examined records from the Arizona Farmworkers Union, the Arizona State University Mexican-American Ephemera and Marry Romero Collection, and the University of Arizona’s Sanctuary Trial collections to explore police brutality in Arizona.

While one might expect stark contrasts in the way the state policed urban spaces versus agricultural spaces, in fact carceral power served a similar purpose in both cases—the preservation of de facto racial segregation and the maintenance of settler colonial white supremacy. In urban spaces, carceral power functioned to enforce the racial segregation of barrios and Anglo communities, while carceral power in fields and labor camps functioned to confine undocumented laborers, segregate them from nearby suburbs and cities, discipline them, and punish their activism.

In both cases, the state policed Latino mobility. By policing segregation, law enforcement policed race. While the goals were similar, the methods and technologies of carceral power authorities deployed in and around fields differed from those employed in cities such as Phoenix and Tucson. In cities, the state constantly policed the lives of Latinos. Metropolitan police were trained to think of Latinos as dangerous, foreign, others—as inherently criminal. The result was a trail of Brown bodies shot by police in the streets.

While many Chicano movement leaders considered Arizonan cities to be “not as bad” as cities in Texas and California, police brutality and state violence was still a fact of life for Chicanos and other Latinos in urban spaces. Metropolitan police officers chased off and beat young Latinos who transgressed into Anglo spaces to take advantage of shops, services, and the night life of these neighborhoods. Police officers were trained to think of Latinos as dangerous others who posed a threat to law and order, and this training contributed to police brutality. Indeed, just as today, police officers were prone to using excessive and unjustifiable lethal force against Latino youth. Police officers who shot young Brown men in the street described the fear they supposedly felt, even when these young men posed an insignificant threat. Urban Chicano and farmworker movement leaders linked these police murders to the same pattern of segregation which kept Arizona’s citrus fields filled with undocumented and exploitable Latino labor. The urban Chicano and the farmworker justice movements came together to protest police assaults, shootings, and murders. Indeed, Chicano leaders discovered that they could use de facto segregation against the state by staging their protests in Anglo neighborhoods, in full view of the Anglo press, to preempt police attempts to break protests up.

A short drive from these major cities, in the massive farms and citrus fields of Arizona, laborers and labor organizers were forced to contend with federal and local police forces who were firmly in agroindustry’s pocket. Rather than constantly policing Brown life as in cities, Border Patrol raids were an intermittent interruption to the grueling daily life of laborers. So long as undocumented laborers were contained in camps, the state felt little need to do more than maintain fear. When workers sought to take control of their living spaces, the state struck back violently. Sheriff’s deputies prevented organizers from accessing labor camps, harassed strikers, broke up picket lines, beat picketers, and turned picketers over to the INS. The INS and Border Patrol, for their part, raided picket lines searching for undocumented immigrants, detained picketers, and deported strikers who were without papers. Despite the overwhelming coercive power that agribusiness and its state allies brought to bear against the farmworker’s justice movement, Latino farmworkers and organizers managed to evade, resist, contest, and endure state violence and win several important victories. Ultimately, however, the power of organized labor waned in the 1990s. While groups like the Maricopa County Organizing Project (MCOP) and its Arizona Farmworkers Union (AFW) could effectively organize to evade police violence, the Immigration Reform and Control Act and its new Bracero program, the H2A program, effectively suppressed labor organizing in the fields by creating a new class of precarious, deportable, easily disciplined guest workers who could be imported on demand to replace strikers.

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