No American state has received as much negative publicity over the past 20 year as Arizona has. The last time a state received as much derision was Mississippi back during the 1960s. In the post-civil rights era, Arizona alone has surpassed the entire Deep South for having a government and populace contemptuous of civil and human rights. In less than a span of one year Arizona has been the centre of legal and political controversy. From its xenophobic anti-immigrant laws up to this month’s political assassination attempt of Congresswoman Giffords, Arizona has been branded as a region of social backwardness and reaction. This begs the question why? What is wrong with Arizona?
This southwestern state west of the Rockies is less than 100 years old as a US state. It’s the 48th State admitted into the Union and the last of the mainland states to have joined. Because of it’s relatively young age as a state, its social and cultural development has lagged behind the rest of the country. The primary reason for this is due to its geography. Arizona is mostly desert. Both practically and metaphorically speaking, Arizona is a vast desert in the United States. Even it’s geography is contradictory as 27% of the land is forest.
The area received the first European explorers with the Spaniards at the end of the 16th century and was subsequently colonised by Spain. Due to its remoteness from the seas and being a landlocked desert, it was sparsely populated by European settlers and their descendants. Most of the inhabitants of the region were indigenous people with the Navajo, Hopi and Apache being the three largest groups. Arizona has the largest American Indian population of any state of the US. After Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, most of the southwest from Texas to California became part of Mexico. After the Mexican-American War of 1847, the US snatched control of all the territories of Texas and Nueva California. During the Civil War, Arizona had joined the Confederacy as a territory. The reason why Arizona achieved statehood late was due to the Democrats in the territory legislature that wanted statehood to coincide with the anniversary of joining the confederacy.
Arizona remained sparsely populated until the end of the Second World War. After Florida, it became the choice state for elderly retirees. Phoenix, the state capital and seat of Maricopa County, remained barely more than a small provincial city up in the 1970s. Like many other cities in the “sunbelt”, such as Atlanta and Dallas, it experienced a population boom of migrants from the Northeast and Mid-West. The city expanded exponentially out into the desert. As the population expanded, so too did big business. Scores of new skyscrapers were erected. Unlike the older cities on the Eastern seaboard, its expansion wasn’t hindered by estuaries, bays and oceans. Phoenix became typical of post-industrial sprawl with a central business district and suburban residential areas.
Issues of Diversity
Given its history as a former colony of Spain and being a territory of Mexico, Arizona has long had a large Hispanic population. As mentioned above, Arizona has a significant American Indian population. (Upon seeing a recent documentary on Russell Means, in which he states his preference for the use of “American Indian” over “Native American”, the former will be used for this essay.) Latinos make up 30% of the population yet have very little social and cultural visibility and their political influence is weak in proportion to their numbers. American Indians are even more deprived as most of them live on Reservations where they lack all civil, legal and constitutional protections and rights. According to Russell Means, American Indian Reservations are to this day classified by the Pentagon as “Prisoner of War Camps”. Despite having the highest population of American Indians in any state, the percentage is only 4.5%. Even more surprising for a midsized American state in 21st Century US is the near absence of Blacks and Asians. Individually there are fewer Blacks and Asians than there are American Indians with 3.4% and 2.3%.respectively.
It was the lack of sensitivity to issues of diversity and of concern for civil rights, which first brought negative controversy to the State of Arizona. Along with New Hampshire, Arizona did not recognise the federal holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. U.S. Senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate, John McCain voted against the measure, though he later he did support the measure to pass on a referendum voted on by state residents in 1990. This measure failed the pass. The failure to recognise Dr. King’s holiday brought national condemnation. The controversy spread internationally when the rap group Public Enemy released the song and video “By The Time I Get To Arizona“. Many Arizonans were defiant and perplexed by the national outcry. Many of them pointed out the fact that since the Black population was negligible, there wasn’t a need to have a “Black holiday” in the state. However, given the history of Arizona’s support and attachment to the Confederacy, one logically concludes that Arizona would not only have kept racial segregation but slavery as well.
In August of 1994, I along with another French artist travelled to Arizona. We had been invited to attend the World Unity Festival which was held outside of Flagstaff in the North of the state. As our plane descended into Phoenix Sky Harbor airport just before sunset, we fly through a heavy haze of smog which was unexpected. From my position, I was unable to see any signs of human habitation on the ground. I saw some mountains and the desert but I not any homes or other indications of human settlement. This fuelled my perplexity as to the source and reason for such heavy pollution.
Upon landing, we took a limousine Downtown. I was to see the strangest sites my 22 year old eyes had ever witnessed. The highway we drove along had 6 lanes in each direction. As a native New Yorker, I had never before seen a 12 lane highway. Robert Moses, with his grandiose mind and proclivity for monumentalism has only designed 6 land Expressways with 3 lanes in each direction. What made the experience all the weirder was the emptiness of the highway. There were hardly any cars anywhere. Why were there 12 lanes for such little traffic? It was shortly after 7 o’clock on a Thursday evening. In New York, the highways are still packed like fat rats at 7 0′clock on an evening workday.
The first truly surreal sight to behold was Downtown Phoenix. Then suddenly, while driving along a deserted 12 lane highway in the middle of a flat empty desert, there appeared a shiny metropolis with sparkling blinking skyscrapers. It really appeared as a mirage in the desert. The last thing one expects to find in the middle of a desert is a post-modern metropolis. We were suddenly out of the desert and racing through wide tunnels with high ceilings, thrust in the canyons of glass and plastic. We turned off the highway and were driving through Downtown. The streets were deserted. Nary another car drove on the streets and not a living soul walking around. Phoenix was silent. Or at least, it seemed so at first.
Our driver asked us where we wanted to go. My companion and I were exhausted from the 7 hours of flying travel we had endured including a layover in Pittsburgh. We had thought about staying the night in Phoenix but neither my companion nor I got the good sense about Phoenix and instructed our driver to take us to the bus terminal. We were keen to get out of that city as quickly as possible.
At the bus terminal, we were informed that we had just missed the bus which departed for Flagstaff. The next bus was scheduled to leave at 3:30AM. We stepped outside to smoke cigarettes. The city was still. Not the zen stillness of nature in the forest or mountains but rather an unnatural stillness. The stillness made me unsettled. That wasn’t all. The city was wasn’t silent per se. I heard a high frequency pitch in my ear. I ignored it at first thinking it was an auditory hallucination. However, it wouldn’t go away. My companion and I locked eyes. “Do you feel it?” She asked. “Yes,” I replied and then asked her: “Do you hear it?” She replied in affirmative. We realised that we had to get out of Phoenix as soon as possible. We thought of alternatives to get out quickly. I considered the train but given that we were in a provincial city in the middle of the desert, it was a long shot. She went in to ask for directions to the train station and to obtain information about transportation out of the city.
There were only Black people at the bus terminal. There weren’t people of any other colour around. The stillness of the atmosphere began to choke me. I observed the Black men sitting around. I have seen down and out Blacks in Harlem, The Bronx and West Philadelphia but there was something special and unique about the particular disposition of these men. Usually Black men are very lively. Conversations, jokes and laughter are usually heard among Black men on the East Coast. These men were silent. Moreover, they seemed afraid to speak. I made eye contact with one middle aged man. I saw fear. It was fear I had never known. A fear that I had never seen. A fear which I didn’t want to know. I looked at the other men and they all had the same fear. Then it struck me what it was. It was the same fear which permeated in Germany during the 1930s. It was the same fear and silence which reigned over Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. It was beyond fear. It was terror. A terror that only a totalitarian social system could produce. Instantly I knew that this was even worse than that. I was in a high-tech totalitarian system of terror. That high frequency pitch was a part of it. We had to get out of Phoenix and fast!
At that moment a taxi drove past with the words Quick Silver on its side. The driver asked if anyone needed a ride. My companion returned and reported that there was no way out of town until the bus at 3:30AM. We then negotiated a fair price with the taxi driver for a ride to Flagstaff. Before we left Phoenix, he stopped by his home. He invited inside where his 5 dogs were sitting in front watching the television with the lights out. When we left, I suggested that he turn off the TV. “No. I always keep it on. The dogs like to watch TV.” Even the animals are under Thought Control in Phoenix.
As we drove North on the interstate out of Phoenix, I noticed a large compound next to the highway. It was surrounded with barbed wire and fences. The first thought that came to my mind was a concentration camp. I pointed my companion to it. We asked the driver what that was. He informed us that it was a prison for children between 7 to 15 years of age.
On the road the driver and his friend whom he enlisted as a co-pilot rolled a couple of spliffs. Just before entering Flagstaff, they become nervous. The driver spoke with the utmost alarm. “We’re almost at Flagstaff! Put out the joint! Put it out! We can’t be smoking in Flagstaff!” I was rather curious as to why they were suddenly so afraid. I found out why minutes later. After we crossed the city line into Flagstaff I observed police brutality. On the other side of the highway, a police officer was thrashing a motorist within an inch of his life.