A Mixed Bag of Unspeakable Violence, Racial Profiling, Failed Leadership and Urban Medicine
It was another beautiful winter’s morning that heralded my drive into downtown Phoenix. The sun was bright, the sky cloudless and temperatures were climbing into the 60s. On this day, which marked the opening of the 50th session of the Arizona Legislature, several events were planned at the State Capitol. The Arizona Tea Party was assembling, as their website proclaimed, “to support our new Conservative Legislature and the Russell Pearce "Tea Party Senate"”. A counter-protest was also planned by those who opposed Senate president Pearce and the Tea Party. There was also a “Meet and Greet” of the various lawmakers and, lastly, a “Hold Russell Pearce Accountable” rally organized by former US Senate candidate and community activist, Randy Parraz.
As I approached the Capitol buildings, I noticed that there were very few parking spaces available but I happened to snag the last one in the lot to the west of the complex. I donned my red tee shirt that proclaimed me a newly minted member of the Phoenix Urban Health Collective (PUHC-- pronounced “Puck” by its members), lugged a heavy backpack stuffed with medical supplies out of my truck, and headed towards the front lawn of the capitol.
I had recently volunteered for PUHC at a health fair in South Phoenix to do basic health screenings, mainly blood pressures and blood sugar checks. My EMT training seemed to lend itself to this kind of outreach for poor, underserved and immigrant members of the community. The Phoenix Urban Health Collective is a loosely organized group of volunteer health providers who are “dedicated to promoting community health among vulnerable populations in the Greater Phoenix Area”. They employ action, outreach and advocacy to achieve their goals of promoting “economic justice, community organization and empowerment, education and safety”.
When large groups of people are mobilized in protest and things go bad-- as has happened when teargas, pepper spray, rubber or pepper bullets have been employed against crowds-- oftentimes EMS response may be delayed due to perceived scene safety issues or a lack of access by emergency vehicles. The action arm of PUHC provides on-scene emergency aid for the injured, going bravely where no EMS dares to go.
While PUHC does commit to offering quality care to any person injured or at health risk during protest events-- no matter the ideology or role of the victim—they also clearly advocate a “solidarity presence in support of marginalized communities that are asserting their rights”, believing that “neutrality always benefits the oppressor—never the oppressed. “ After observing PUHC in action during a clash between police and protesters at a Neo Nazi rally last November, My husband (a physician assistant with extensive emergency medical background) and I became interested in this unusual form of first responding. When invited by PUHC member, Jason Odhner to help out at the upcoming health fair taking place on January 8th, we enthusiastically agreed to come.
The health fair was a great success. People flooded the small community park to partake of the various vendors, music, free food and other services. Those of us doing health screenings were swamped for several hours as those who had little or no access to these services lined up for blood pressure and blood sugar readings and free flu shots. While several of us did basic screenings, there were also medical professionals on hand to consult with patients who showed results that were health-threatening, advising them on how and where to seek accessible medical services in the city.
But our day got turned upside down when Jason checked his cell phone and suddenly exclaimed, “Gabriel Gifford’s been shot!” The rest of the day was spent trying to do our work while constantly checking for updates on phones and radios. It wasn’t until the event ended and while driving home to the sobering news on NPR--that we finally allowed the full impact of that horrific day to take hold.
As I headed to the Capitol building from the parking lot I was feeling some justified nervous anticipation. Rumor was that the police would be out in full force with riot gear, on high alert after the horrific events of just two days before. The Tea Party was feeling defensive after calls for less violent rhetoric were directed at them and their de-facto leader, Sarah Palin. Since they were also passionate about the Second Amendment, I suspected that many would be carrying guns.
I trudged across the Capitol’s East Lawn carrying my heavy pack and observed a group of about fifty Tea Partiers, distinguished by their American flags and predominantly white complexions. As I had anticipated, there were a few who were open-carrying handguns and I suspected there were many more who packed concealed weapons, as is legal in this state without a permit.
A short distance away a far more diverse group of several dozen people were joining in a circle with signs proclaiming “Hate is Not a Family Value” and “Pearce and Palin, Stop the Hate”. I didn’t see a single gun or weapon in this crowd. I also observed that there were no riot police present, just a somewhat larger than normal cadre of Capitol and State peace officers and some spotters on the rooftops of the buildings watching through binoculars.
My phone rang. It was Jesus, my PUHC partner. He was having trouble finding a parking place. I offered some suggestions and hung up. Some friends approached and we talked, going over the events of the past two days and trying to make sense of it all. A man was playing a guitar and singing in Spanish in the circle of people and candles were being lit at a little shrine for the Tucson victims. I kept my eye on the crowds, especially the Tea Partiers and their guns.
Time passed and Jesus called to say he’d found a parking spot at a restaurant some distance away and was walking towards the Capitol. I looked north up 17th Street and saw him, recognizable by his red PUHC shirt with its distinctive black cross, approaching along the sidewalk some distance off. I was talking to my friend, Brenda at the time and I waved to him. I looked away and then looked back and saw that Jesus had stopped and was talking to a couple of blue-clad police officers. Frowning, I gestured that way and asked Brenda, “What is going on with my friend over there and the cops?” When I saw the police direct Jesus over to a parked squad car on the street I grabbed my pack and Brenda and we headed over there in a hurry.
We rushed up to the scene where Jesus, (who is a dark-skinned young man with a black ponytail) was standing with his hands behind his head in the classic “perp pose” while being patted down by a female officer. There were now at least two squad cars and several police officers present. I stated loudly, “Excuse me officers but this is my colleague with the Phoenix Urban Health Collective and we’re here to provide medical services for this event.” A male officer put his hand up and told me to stand back and not interfere with their investigation. I pulled out my cell phone and took pictures while continuing to state loudly, “I find it interesting that I’ve been walking around this area wearing the exact same Urban Health tee shirt and carrying my backpack of medical supplies but for some reason you’ve singled out my friend here for your search, can you please explain this to me?” Others at the rally noticed the ruckus and ten or more people came over to take photos and run their video cameras. I kept repeating that Jesus was a medic like myself and that there appeared to be a disparity as to who the police were singling out. Other voices were raised and people started chanting, “Let him go! Let him go!”
Fortunately the police decided that Jesus wasn’t the threat he appeared to be so they apologized to him, gave him back his license and the contents of his pockets and let him go. The bystanders all applauded. Jesus had carried himself with aplomb throughout the whole incident and afterwards explained that the cops told him they thought he might be a car thief because he’d been observed driving around the neighborhood during his search for a parking space. None of us could figure out why a car thief would be driving his own car around but I had a strong suspicion that logic probably wasn’t at play here.
As we walked back across the lawn of the Capitol I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of the situation. Of course, all during SB1070’s creation and both before and after being signed into law we heard an endless stream of vehement denials from the leadership of this state that profiling of Latinos and indigenous peoples would be employed during its enforcement. But here, right in front of the very buildings where the law was enacted, I had just witnessed firsthand what I could only surmise was blatant racial profiling.
Now, in a similar ruse to deny what is right in front of our faces, the right wing is arguing that heated and violent rhetoric in our political arena had no role in a deranged individual’s attempted assassination of a US Congresswoman. Sadly these fervent disclaimers from those who perpetuate such rhetoric ring just as false as Jan Brewer’s assertion that racial profiling would not be tolerated in our state.
While there may be no straight lines to be drawn in the Tucson tragedy between Jared Loughner and the endless violent rants and images of certain political and media figures, the fact remains that the workings of an unhinged mind do not operate on straight lines. Nor does it operate in a vacuum. The violent political culture in this state can no longer be ignored. Pima County Sheriff Dupnik summed it up correctly when he likened today’s Arizona to the days of Wyatt Earp and shootouts at the OK Corral.
Arizona’s leadership has failed us on so many levels. Our lax gun laws rank us third highest in the nation for gun ownership and second highest in gun deaths. Deranged individuals can buy a Glock and extended clips with only the most minimal oversight and not only can they legally open-carry such weapons up to lawmakers during a public event but even up to the State Capitol buildings while every lawmaker in the state assembles.
Our draconian human rights violations in the form of racial profiling, stripping of educational programs for minorities, and unconstitutional kneejerk immigration legislation and enforcement are ongoing. Our schools rank 49th in the nation for per-pupil spending and 50th in educational quality and the slashing of state aid for transplant recipients, children’s health and mental health services is nothing short of shameful.
I only see more turmoil ahead as those who push back against these failures in leadership take to the streets in yet more protests. As things reach a boiling point and PUHC action teams wade into the crowds to render aid, it’s only inevitable that all eyes will once again be on Arizona.