Sunday, April 25, 2010

Breathing While Brown

Many years ago, some of my black friends told me about the “crime” of "DWB." The crime of “driving while black” made them much more likely to be pulled over by the police for offenses that would not result in a white person’s being stopped by the police.

This week, Arizona’s governor signed a bill that should be named “Breathing While Brown.” As I understand it, it allows any Arizona law enforcement officer to demand proof of citizenship of anyone whom they encounter.

As one who has loved to travel to Arizona, when I heard this story, I quickly thought: “How in the world could I prove that I’m a U.S. citizen??” Then I quickly realized my passport would do the trick.

But I don’t carry my passport with me when I’m traveling inside the U.S. I keep it safely locked away until I am traveling abroad.

You can see my photo in the sidebar. I’ve a garden-variety American mutt. What are the real odds that an Arizona policeman would ask me to prove my citizenship? I bet they’re virtually nil.

Were I brown-skinned, I would now have to carry my passport or birth certificate with me all the time. And, frankly, I’d be terrified. Because, if I understand correctly, the penalty for “breathing while brown” or otherwise not being able immediately to produce documentation of one’s citizenship will be jail. Jail time at least until one can get someone else to bring in one’s paperwork. For me, that would mean finding a friend willing to break into my apartment, find the correct file cabinet, then retrieve the birth certificate, and bring it to the police station. [I'm assuming my friends wouldn't have the temerity to break into the bank at 10:00 on a Saturday night to retrieve my passport from my safe deposit box.]

I go to church with many, many Africans who have immigrated from Sierra Leone. Would they be given a pass? Or would they have to prove positively that they are here legally?

Worse yet for the brown-skinned people who are targets of the Arizona law. I expect every one of them will be assumed guilty.

My priest is a brown-skinned woman, born in Sri Lanka. I get livid at the notion that she would be subjected to this bigotry.

Arizona’s legislature and governor have said there will be no racial profiling. But how can there not be?? The only way to avoid it will be to require proof of citizenship from everyone - whether it’s the lily-white mayor, the Asian professor, the black banker, the Hispanic business owner, the European tourist, or the Sri Lankan Episcopal priest. The only way Arizona can implement this law constitutionally is to suspect everyone of being an illegal alien.

I believe this should infuriate every American and terrify every visitor. If I were an international visitor to the U.S., I would definitely steer clear of Arizona. No Grand Canyon visit for me!

Now … I am familiar with Godwin’s Law … which suggests that anyone invoking a parallel to Nazism thereby loses the argument. But, really, isn’t this just a bit too similar to the requirement that Jews carry papers and wear a Star of David? I find it spooky.

I am also reminded of the situation of free blacks in the U.S. in the 19th century. They had to carry special papers with them, proving their emancipated state. If one of them was caught without those papers, s/he could be sold back into slavery. And that happened very frequently.

That is the legacy that Arizona’s law seeks to reenact. It’s the legacy of Nazism and slavery. It’s a “guilty until proven innocent” approach that flies in the face of my understanding of our Constitution.

I was pleased and proud today to see the pastoral letter from Arizona’s Bishop Kirk Smith (also available here in Spanish). I am proud to be a member of his tribe! I encourage you to read his letter.

Bishop Smith offers hope and encouragement:
This law does not take effect for 90 days. During that time there will be many court challenges, including those coming from the federal government. The law might be tied up for months and years in litigation, and I believe there is a good possibility it will never go into effect.
I hope he is correct. If he is not, this bodes ill for all of us.

To me, the Arizona legislation says we have become a nation of fear rather than a nation of freedom. We have seen it in many other laws all over the U.S. Pluralities in the U.S. (most of whom identify as "conservative" or "Republican") are organizing to pass laws that restrict liberties ... even while they claim to be defending the Constitution and the liberties enshrined therein.

This nation was established as a republic - not as a democracy. To the extent that we put people's rights up to a vote of the majority, you can bet that the minority will lose every time. Whether it's the Hispanics in Arizona, the gays in California, or the smokers in Jefferson City, you can bet that the majority will act as a tyranny against the minority. The brilliance of those who drafted the Constitution is that they wrote in "checks and balances" against a tyranny of the majority. But those who claim to be "conservatives" are eroding those safeguards all over this nation.

Ah, well. I wandered a bit further afield than I intended. Sorry about that.

Back to the original point: What I would next like to hear from Arizona's Bishop Smith is: What can those of us outside Arizona do to turn the tide against this hideous legislation? And I don't mean creating a stupid Facebook page saying "I don't like the Arizona law." I mean real, tangible, and effective means to say "Enough is enough!"


Blogger JimB said...

There are probably two things that those of us outside or Arizona can do effectively oppose the law. One is to organize a boycott of Arizona tourism, the other is to donate to legal fees payment groups.

Both have their problems. Let's face it, tourism is off anyway because of the economy and I do not know who it that is the best legal challenge group to support. But I suspect that we can find out.

There might be one other thing. A note to your Congressperson asking for some work on a funding penalty law that would take 100% of all Federal aid away from Arizona if it enforces this law might get some interesting responses.


4/25/2010 5:24 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

I don't even have a birth certificate to show -- I mean the state has one but I don't have a copy. Terrifying. As I understand it even a passport won't work - it has to be a birth certificate.

4/25/2010 5:36 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Jim, I really hope Bishop Kirk Smith will speak to the church about this.

Yes, a boycott of Arizona will help. I understand that even some Arizona legislators are requesting this. But a trip to Arizona isn't in my plans for this year, so that doesn't help me help Arizona.

I'm not sure that U.S. legislation could help. They're up to their eyeballs in other legislation I care about, and I don't see Arizona on their radar.

I do appreciate your tips, but I just don't see them doing much. As I said, I want to hear from Bishop Smith about what might help. He's on the ground. He's working with other priests and with the laity. I am going to wait for a "call to arms" from him, rather than going off in a scattershot fashion. I hope you understand that.

4/25/2010 6:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Amen, Ann. It is terrifying. I hope all the light-skinned folks will come to realize what a challenge this poses to all who pass through Arizona.

4/25/2010 6:02 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

btw Lisa - +Kirk is on FB and Twitter and posting info on this

4/25/2010 6:56 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Since my name certainly could be one belonging to one of the "suspects," I think if I would have to travel to AZ for some reason, I would bring my birth certificate with me and annoyingly, in a loud voice, go, "DON'T YOU WANT TO SEE MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE?" everyplace I went.

There has to be some power in the "power of one" somehow in this mess. I don't like economic boycotts, especially in this case, b/c not spending money in AZ simply puts the people most "suspect" out of the low paying jobs that tourism supports--restaurant help, motel housekeeping, etc.

4/25/2010 8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the days when speaking to the customs officer with an American accent was enough to grant you passage into the US. It seems to me that speaking without an American accent is now enough to put you under suspicion of being on the other side of the border. And let's be honest, the attitudes that fueled this law are pretty much only concerned with people of Hispanic descent - not European, Asian, Caribbean, African, or another, which to me is even more reprehensible.

4/25/2010 8:45 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Ann, I hope this will be helpful to others. But, as I think you know, I don't tweet. Nor am I on Facebook as often as I wish.

4/25/2010 8:49 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Maria, honey child, you're as miserable white/mutt as I am.

I agree with you about the effects of an economic boycott.

That's why I'm wanting Arizona's Bishop Smith to tell us what we could do that could really be helpful.

4/25/2010 8:52 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yes, Elle; I agree. It's anti-brown sentiment that motivated the Arizona legislature. Worse yet: From what I read, the moderate Republican governor who signed the damn bill is being challenged by a teaparty-type Republican in the primary. Much like the Florida situation. It looks like she signed this dastardly piece of legislation to prove to the extreme right-wingers that she could be just as mean and hateful as the teaparty wing of the

Miserable stuff.

4/25/2010 9:25 PM  
Blogger Caminante said...

"As I understand it even a passport won't work - it has to be a birth certificate."

This is nuts. I always thought a passport trumped a birth certificate because you had to show a birth certificate and proof of citizenship to get a passport.

My birth certificate is a photocopy with stamped seal from the city where I was born. And I do still have my original baptismal certificate, which long, long ago also was a valid proof of identification.

4/25/2010 11:22 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

They are nuts.

4/25/2010 11:24 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Ann: The most incisive three words about this whole miserable situation. "They are nuts" says it in a nutshell.

Caminante: I just cannot imagine living in a state where I have to carry my passport and/or birth certificate with me at all times. But that is exactly the situation that free blacks faced in the 19th century. Arizona has put us all back into the status of 19th-century free blacks. ... And they call this liberty????

4/25/2010 11:57 PM  
Blogger Episcopal Bear said...

The way to force Arizona's hand on this outrageous violation of human rights is through civil disobedience, by offering sanctuary to undocumented aliens within the walls of any Episcopal church in the state.

Indeed, to do so is in direct violation of a part of the new law, which says it's unlawful to:


So, force Arizona to break down the doors of a bunch of Episcopal churches, thereby embarrassing the hell out of them and showing them up for the Brownshirts that they truly are.

4/26/2010 12:53 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

That appeals to my radical self, Episcopal Bear. Had Missouri passed this miserable law, I might even be trying to organize our parishes to do it.

But Arizona passed the law. So I'm trying to sit quietly waiting for Bishop Smith or other leaders in Arizona to tell me how I can help in ways that really matter and might truly make a difference.

4/26/2010 1:01 AM  
Blogger Mark Diebel said...

The matter is further complicated for adopted people who have amended birth certificates that have proven in some instances useless for getting passports. The original cerificate is sealed. Internationally adopted persons may face new and different scrutiny.

Also, poc's in Nebraska have already been held over night while proof of their citizenship was obtained.

4/26/2010 6:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post about our situation here in Arizona. Sadly, even "proof" isn't good enough here. I know of one Episcopal friend who was pulled over last year. She had recently received her paperwork and produced it upon demand - not request. The officer's attitude badly scared her and she reverted to her native Spanish. The officer said her paperwork was obviously fake (it wasn't) and that it was illegal to speak Spanish in Arizona (it's not). She was held for what I think was seven hours until her status was verified.

4/26/2010 10:39 AM  
Blogger Linda Ryan said...

"Proof" is in the eye of the beholder and this bill is nothing short of racial profiling, no matter how they deny that it is.

Giving a cup of water to a motorist broken down on the side of the road could get you arrested if the driver and/or passengers can't provide proof of citizenship to satisfy the police. And then there's Sheriff Joe Arpaio who sees this as vindication of his heavy-handed raids and chases of potentially illegal aliens.

Lord, have mercy on Arizona which is surely disregarding a number of things you taught us that we should be doing.

4/26/2010 2:11 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I hadn't even thought about that, Mark. And I should have, since I have some friends are adopted.

This is likely to get very, very ugly for the Arizona cops.

4/26/2010 9:08 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Greta, I'm truly grateful that you dropped in here. I'm especially grateful that you're speaking from the perspective of an Arizona resident. You know more about this than I possibly can.

Thank you for telling that story! I hope you in Arizona will tell more stories.

Your story chills me. It says the police/sheriff can detain anyone whom they want to inconvenience. No one will be safe. That's very scary to me.

4/26/2010 9:15 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Wow, what I wouldn't give to see an episode of "Sheriff Joe makes an ass of himself in raiding a bunch of Episcopal churches."

4/26/2010 9:47 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Agreed, Maria. Dog the Bounty Hunter would seem like a Sister of St. Teresa by comparison.

4/26/2010 9:51 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...


What sort of name is that?! It doesn't sound American.

Maybe, just maybe, someone should demand the sheriff be held until it can be absolutely-beyond-doubt verified that he is an actual American citizen? Of course, if they refuse to arrest him until it is proven, you can sue them for not doing their job.

The law says so.

4/27/2010 1:25 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

LOL, Mark. I love that suggestion!!

4/27/2010 7:07 AM  
Blogger Lindy said...

Since I am not a citizen of China I often have to prove that I have the legal right to be here. I really don't have a problem with that. When I got a job the government gave me a special little book to carry around saying that I am a Foreign Expert and have the right to come and go for a set period of time which makes it easier to visit other countries. I carry that around all the time and show it when asked. It's not a big deal. If I get caught without the proper documentation I could be detained and/or deported. I am aware of this. I do not consider it any special kind of torment. Certainly it is not comparable to the shoah.

4/30/2010 8:08 AM  

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