Monday, May 24, 2010

State Of Unrest: A New Arizona Law Could Keep Musicians Out

The debate over immigration in the United States has been gradually reaching its inevitable crescendo during the past few years, but the passage of Senate Bill 1070 last month in Arizona may be the turning point that pushes the issue into a full-scale crisis. The bill, widely considered the toughest immigration law in the country, empowers state law enforcement to detain those whom there is a "reasonable suspicion" that they're in the country illegally and requires citizens to carry proof of their legal status at all times. Supporters of the bill see it as a way for the state to enforce federal laws that are already in the books. But critics of the bill say it renders Arizona a police state, one in which racial profiling has essentially been written into law. Their concern: How exactly does one inspire suspicion that they are an illegal immigrant aside from skin color?

When it comes to race relations, Arizona has historically been one of the most contentious battlegrounds in the country. During the Civil War, it was one of the only territories in the West to fight alongside the Confederacy, and the state didn't recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day until 1992--nearly a decade after it became a federal holiday. (In 1987, governor Evan Mecham rescinded the holiday as his first act in office.) During the next several years, widespread boycotts of the state stirred the controversy, most notably with the NFL relocating the site of that year's Super Bowl out of Arizona. Public Enemy commentated on the state in "By The Time I Get To Arizona" on 1991's Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black: "What's a smiling face when the whole state's racist? The cracker over there, he try to keep it yesteryear, the good ol' days the same ol' ways that kept us dyin'."

By comparison, the reaction to that bit of racially problematic law-making may eventually pale in comparison to the pending fallout from SB 1070. Seattle recently became the 11th city in the U.S. to endorse a full boycott of Arizona, cutting off future contracts with Arizona-based businesses and ending official travel to the state. Prominent members of the sports community like the NBA's Arizona Suns have voiced their displeasure (even wearing "Los Suns" jerseys during the conference semifinals in response to the bill), many members of the baseball community have called for MLB to relocate training facilities from the state and prominent members of the entertainment and music industry have taken an oppositional stance. Most notable among them so far are CYPRESS HILL, the veteran Latino rap group who canceled a planned concert in Arizona earlier this month in protest. They released a statement which reads:

"In a show of resistance to the criminalization of immigrant communities and in opposition to SB 1070, recently signed into Arizona legislation, Cypress Hill has elected to cancel a performance scheduled in Tucson for May 21, 2010. This decision was made in an effort to show support and solidarity with those, undocumented and otherwise, being directly affected by this unconstitutional 'law.' Cypress Hill recognizes those living in the struggle for their basic civil rights. Rise up!"

Tucson radio station La Caliente 102.1 FM also canceled its annual Tusa Festival where some of the biggest names in Mexican music were set to perform. Under the new law, suspicious parties are essentially considered illegal immigrants until proven otherwise. Since 30 percent of the state's population are of Hispanic or Latino origin, it has effectively criminalized entire swaths of the state's citizens. "I definitely think that the Cypress Hill cancelation is the harbinger of more stuff like this to come," says Curtis McCrary of the Rialto Theater in Tempe, the venue where the show was to take place. "I've been told of a few other cancellations over it and threatened cancellations [Los Lobos were going to cancel planned dates but later changed their minds], and some bands such as Stars have already made their intent to boycott public." Stars wrote in a tweet, "We love AZ. But until its racist new immigration law is repealed, Stars (and many others) will boycott this state."

This is a perilous development for anyone involved in planning events within the state. "For now, going forward I'm going to verify that a given band will not cancel before I confirm a show," says McCrary. "But who knows how many bands simply skip the state without making a public statement on it because they don't like SB 1070 and other recently passed insane Arizona legislation?" He's referring to the new law that prohibits classes in the Arizona school system from focusing on a specific race such as African American, Native American and Mexican American studies and also prohibits classes that advocate the overthrow of the American government.

One band who may consider avoiding the state altogether are El Paso, Texas, psych-prog outfit ZECHS MARQUISE--featuring bassist Marfred Rodriguez-Lopez, the brother of the Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. "I'm Puerto Rican, and I look like it," says Rodriguez-Lopez. "If I was visiting Arizona and the authorities wanted to, they could detain me because I might be illegal. It's left to their discretion. After that, it's their game, their rules until things get sorted out. I remember returning home one time from Mexico. Crossing the bridge over to the U.S., I was asked by customs where I was born and the brilliant customs officer didn't know Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth and that all its natives are U.S. citizens. After hassling me for the better part of an hour, I was let go." He also said, "Three-quarters of us in the band are Hispanic. Now we're a target. The less time we spend in that state the better."

Matt Sanchez of Massachusetts indie dance-pop band THE BLUE PAGES agrees it's an affront to musicians, saying, "I have been following the situation and am completely flabbergasted about the outcome." Sanchez's family is from Spain and Mexico. "It's most definitely a case of racial profiling. It infringes on the rights of all Americans and is therefore very unjust. It's a sad day when you can be walking down the street and asked for papers based off of what you look like." It's clear that a law like this might cause bands planning tour itineraries to think twice about stopping in Arizona. "As a touring musician, it's something that I would definitely take into consideration," says Sanchez. "We have two people in the band of Latin descent, and it would be very disturbing if we were stopped and asked to prove our American citizenship. I don't think this law would ever stop us from touring because music comes first, but it would sure put a damper on things. This would be something that I'd be thinking about in the back of my mind, and it's terrible that I can't be comfortable in my own country."

However, Sanchez doesn't think a boycott of the state will affect the kind of change necessary. "If we want change, we have to actively voice our opinions and demand reform," he says. "Maybe bands should urge all of their fans to write to their state demanding change. I know it seems like a letter won't do a lot, but millions of letters will create awareness, which will create change."

Juan Dies of Grammy- and Latin Grammy-nominated folk group SONES DE MEXICO says his group will play in Arizona whenever invited, although he is "very unhappy and embarrassed" about the legislation. "I don't want to punish all the people from Arizona on account of those who favored this legislation. Not all people in Arizona support this policy. The Arizona HB 2162 is evidence of it." That more recent bill revises the original SB 1070, essentially saying that law enforcement may only undertake determination of legal residency during the normal course of a routine violation such as a traffic stop.

It's important to point out that while much of the attention has been focused on Arizona, at least 10 other states including Texas, Nebraska, Utah and Colorado are considering enacting similar immigration laws. You can't boycott everywhere, and David Slutes of Tucson venue the Hotel Congress thinks it would do more harm than good. "Our feeling, even though I abhor the bill personally and as a business guy, is that the boycott is, particularly in our industry, not the way to address it," he says. "I would almost go so far as to say many artists are being lazy and self-serving to knee-jerk boycott our state when they can be much more effective coming to the state and energizing the base. It's just a horrendous bill and our soul is hurt by this. [Musicians] have a soapbox to stand on. If the toothbrush manufacturers convention doesn't come to the state, so be it. They aren't energizing the base. These acts have a pulpit, they have thousands of people watching and cheering them on and listening to what they have to say."

In Tucson, arguably the liberal enclave of Arizona, people are aggressively lobbying against the bill. In fact, the city council has filed suit against the state saying that the immigration law is unconstitutional, and will also be bad for the economy and result in millions of dollars in losses in potential lawsuits against the state. That's one reason why Slutes said his attempts to convince Los Lobos to reconsider their boycott of Arizona was heartening. He asked the band's management, "What are you trying to achieve here? You lose money by doing it. If your goal is to affect change in this, it's much better served by coming here. It's an election year and we need to get [the legislators who did this] out of office. Cypress Hill were given a very [similar] argument from Curtis at the Rialto trying to convince them to do [the same], but they considered and decided still to boycott. So it's splitting evenly."

Will state legislators actually care what rock musicians have to say? History shows that often isn't the case. Slutes says Arizona legislators would prefer no one came and spoke out. "Do you think for a second that the authors of this bill want Latino bands coming to the state making all this news? Of course they don't. [The lawmakers] love that they're boycotting. They don't want [the artists] coming here. They'd rather have the supporter impoverished and unenergized."

Members of Canadian punk band FUCKED UP think a boycott is counterproductive as well. Vocalist Damian Abraham took issue with their countrymen Stars' boycott announcement in an op-ed piece for Stereogum. "This law is purported to be a way of addressing what is a perceived to be a lacking in enforcement of immigration laws," he wrote. "But it is felt by many--myself included--to be a massively flawed piece of legislation that is, at its core, out and out racism." He thinks a band boycotting the state makes an assumption about their fans that they support the law. "There's such a huge number of people opposed to this law within Arizona that by trying to force a change through a boycott, the side-effect is punishing these people. These people need support now more then ever."

Fucked Up recently performed in Phoenix and enlisted the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths to provide an information table at their show. NMD is dedicated to helping prevent fatalities in crossings along the U.S./Mexico border. "It's easy to boycott a place you don't go to very often anyway," says Sean Bonnette of Phoenix folk-punks ANDREW JACKSON JIHAD. "It's easy to say you're boycotting and just skip it from New Mexico to California to make a grand political stand. I think indie bands should come to Arizona more. People should move here and vote. That would make a real difference. When Fucked Up just came here, they got a hold of No More Deaths. That's way more productive than just not coming."

AJJ are one of 17 bands to contribute a song to A Line In The Sand, a compilation of protest songs compiled by the Phoenix New Times. Music editor Martin Cizmar says the album serves to show the diversity of the state's music scene, and that not everyone supports the bill. "The thing that I'm worried about is that [the bill] makes us look like a bunch of rednecks and people aren't going to want to play here," he says. "They're going to look at their tour schedule and it leaves a bitter taste in the their mouth. It gives them a bad idea of what Arizona is all about."

Another problem is the idea of bands coming through giving Arizona citizens a lecture on why they are misguided. Cizmar says this isn't necessary. "When John McCain was running against Obama, [during every show] I saw in fall 2008, bands took a couple minutes to chastise McCain and talk about how great Obama is to an audience where 90 percent of the people already agreed with them. Why did they feel the need to do that? I don't know, but it's what they did. This is going to be like that times 10."

Another artist inspired to release a song in opposition to this law is New York City-based electronic artist COSTANZA. Her video for "Just Another Alien" is a recitation of the questions taken from the U.S. DS-156 Immigration Form. Put in this context they seem ominous and threatening.

"I am an alien," says Costanza. "I went through a whole bunch of papers to get my visa. I'm very close emotionally to the immigration issue, not only because I'm an alien in the U.S., but I'm from Italy where we have a lot of big problems with immigration. When this law [was passed], I was very touched by it, so I decided to release this video not so much as a protest against the law, but because I feel like we need to speak up."

While there have been vocal opponents to the law, it still definitely has its supporters. "Let there be no doubt that this state has its share of utter lunatics," says the Rialto's McCrary. "Unfortunately, many of them have managed to get elected to the legislature." AJJ's Bonette hates the message all of this sends to the rest of the country. "It's so embarrassing that Arizona has pretty much proved itself to pretty much be the most racist state in the nation," he says.

Costanza is more worried about the spreading of this type of law. "If this thing stays in Arizona, it's bad. But if it comes in other states it will be huge," she says. "It's not something that's just a little law, that any alien can be stopped without papers. It's about privacy, it's about culture. It's an excuse to talk about something bigger. Let's talk about what's going on. The concept of the United States was born on immigration. I'm very little, just an artist in the middle of Brooklyn, but I think the revolutions of culture, especially in civil rights issues, start from the small movements."

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