Gregory Lella

Most literature examining how the state criminalized and punished Latinidad has focused on urban policing, and that literature itself is often overly focused on California and Texas. While this has shed fruitful light on policing at the border, there have been few, if any, attempts to compare how the state polices Latinidad in rural and urban settings. 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. Contrasting urban and rural settings reveals one major, stark contrast: in urban spaces, carceral power functioned to enforce racial segregation between barrios and Anglo communities, while in rural areas carceral power functioned to discipline Latino laborers and punish labor activism. Chicano, Latino, and farmworker movement activists understood those differences and understood that police brutality was connected to a larger regime of exploitation and white supremacy.

Despite this apparent stark difference, a common thread links the two—both aim to police Latino mobility in the borderlands. In urban areas, the police function to prevent Latino encroachment into white neighborhoods and spaces—particularly downtown areas. By policing segregation, urban law enforcement policed race. In rural spaces, on the other hand, local and federal officials functioned to prevent farmworkers and other laborers from changing job sites, venturing beyond their labor camps, and relocating to participate in the urban economy. This was still a deployment of carceral power to criminalize and target a specific racial group, but the specific methods and technologies deployed in and around fields differed from those employed in cities such as Phoenix and Tucson.

While many Chicano movement leaders considered Arizonan cities to be “not as bad” as cities in Texas and California (such as Los Angeles), 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, which contributed to police brutality. Indeed, just as they are today, police officers were prone to using excessive and 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 did not pose a realistic threat to armed officers. Chicano and farmworker movement leaders linked these violent incidents to the same pattern of segregation which kept Arizona’s citrus fields filled with undocumented and exploitable Latino labor, and these 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 factory-farms and citrus fields of southern Arizona, laborers and labor organizers were forced to contend with federal and local police forces who were firmly in agroindustry’s pocket and relatively free from the eyes of the Anglo press. Here, elected sheriffs felt no qualms about using violence to disrupt Latino labor activism. Sheriff deputies harassed strikers, prevented organizers from accessing labor camps, broke up picket lines, beat picketers, and turned picketers over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). For their part, the INS and Border Patrol raided picket lines searching for undocumented immigrants, detained picketers, and deported undocumented strikers.

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 to win several important victories. Ultimately, however, the power of organized labor in the fields waned in the 1990s. While groups like the Arizona Farmworkers Union could effectively organize to evade police violence, ultimately the Immigration Reform and Control Act (and the new Bracero-like H2A program) effectively suppressed labor organizing in the fields by creating a new class of precarious, deportable, difficult to organize, and easily disciplined guest workers.