Will a Phoenix Rise Again?

by ben lewis and Sushil Rao

Published in New Observations #143 | May 13th, 2023

This system wants us dead. It wants us hungry, angry, lonely and tired—depleted and defeated, confused and conforming—to maximize its effect and profit. It is able to do so by valuing greed and dominance over that of love and compassion, keeping us in a never-ending loop of despair. From birth we are logged, numbered and indoctrinated into the State’s system.

I tell you all this not to diminish hope, but to remind us of the level of resistance required—just enough to stay sane, and a little more to fight back. Here is a reminder—first and always, breathe, rest, and hydrate. These things are so fun- damental to our existence as humans.

I want to tell you a story from so-called Phoenix, which is unceded Oodtham, Piipaash and Pima territory, where, within the state of Arizona, 22 reservations/nations exist. The water wars have finally hit the mainstream, and whole towns of people are at the stores scouring the shelves for access to water. The people of this land have been seeing the water diminish for a generation to serve the digging of mines, running of pipelines, and the depletion of the power and bounty of the place we’ve always known as home. These fights continue to this day as court rulings await the destruction of Oak Flat in Apache territory for copper. Already, rulings against the Havasupai tribe have solidified the continued mining of uranium from the Grand Canyon.

Arizona will often refer to itself as a god-fearing country, but Jesus said that whoever is dishonest with little, will be dishonest with much, and there has been dishonesty with so many things. It’s hard to find an honest sliver of truth in the lies told to justify the exploitation of this land. Seeing through the veil of deceit is a constant battle of facing shame and hopelessness and defeat. Who could blame us for falling short? Our blamelessness won’t save us either. The system thrives on our hopelessness and inaction. The best tall brave middle finger given to the things that are holding us down is to push back the veil of hopelessness and lean into our righteous rage. Things are being stolen from us as surely as we were also the ones doing the stealing. We can remain complacent and wallow in our own self defeat, or we can grab each other by the wrist and pull ourselves upright and say, “We don’t stand for this endless pursuit of capital! We stand for water! We stand for the land -not OUR land, THE land. Not OUR water, THE water. Everyone’s water. Water’s water!”

In some cities the people have come together to grant personhood to water, which is an amazing shift in the fight against exploitation, which seems ridiculous on its face. It illustrates how incapable our system is of understanding and considering the things that matter most—the immeasurable, the collective and the vast. Do we have to have an address and a number to matter to society? What a foolish and self-defeating limitation of perspective! For instance, every individual in the 3rd largest incarcerator in America (Maricopa county) is identified within the system, and yet, when (if!) released, they are left with little to no paperwork forcing them to find survival outside of the strict constructs of legality.

And the lies continue down a well-worn path to further exploitation.

Lies and confusion are built into the design of the system, and in that design, the power (in this case, power to resist) is extracted from each of us and consolidated into a growing weapon. The system’s weapon is physical in the seemingly endless forced labor, its police, its mental oppression (by paranoia and confusion), its emotional oppression by incul- cating fear, is completely disheartening. It is spiritual in the self-defeatism as it revalues the land to the standards of the system, suppressing all life.

But these are broad perspectives on an infirm society. People rarely relate to the whole without a story about the individual or the few. Let’s zoom in on the story of the war the city of Phoenix has been waging on its residents for far too long, and the swelling wave of resistance that hit the brakes in 2020. The same day that George Floyd was stran- gled in broad daylight in so called Minneapolis, Maricopa County hosted a similarly appalling disregard for black life. Dion Johnson, a young father, was exhausted driving home in the early hours of the morning. He made what seemed like the safest choice with consideration for his fellow resi-dents and pulled his car over to take a nap. Not long after pulling over he was awakened by an armed Arizona State Trooper and executed in his car for simply sleeping. In the depth of the night no one was there to witness and amplify this tragedy. By the time the state release their video foot- age the press had moved on. The film was too grainy. The angle of the shot was imperfect. The twisted joy of the state enforcer was indiscernible.

It is violence to be told that our lives and the lives of our neighbors don’t matter unless they clear an impossible bar of media viability or internet virality. That’s another lie, a lie designed to keep us from fighting back. Because they know that if they beat us in our minds then they don’t have to be defeated in the streets. Phoenix showed up for Dion. We didn’t need to see the tape to know that his death was wrong. In our showing up the police kept up their violent practice of enforcement. (It is the only language they speak, beside the language of bureaucratic paperwork, which is a different language of violence.) They showed off their shiny new tactical response unit, with their grenadiers. They showed off their tear gas and their Israeli special forces tac- tics, they showed off their special team of prosecutors to punish anyone who stood against the police—up charging a misdemeanor 3 (obstruction of a public thoroughfare) to that of a sentence of over 100 years by imposing multiple felonies, including felony 2—aggravated assault on an of- ficer with a deadly weapon (for having an umbrella in hand while being violently dogpiled). The system focused the full power of the legal system at folks who stood against the system to say “Black Lives Matter” by charging them as a criminal street gang.

And that’s a lot to bear, but as a community we were able to support one another. No one talked, and everybody walked. Local defense lawyers represented protestors to get technicalities removed. The news captured every fascist moment of it and asked residents if this is what they would tolerate from their own city employees. Cops were fired and demoted, reports were researched and released, and lawsuits are still holding the city accountable for the harm they have continued to cause. An all-out campaign to recall the county prosecutor who oversaw the weaponization of the justice system resulted in her stepping down. The cops got nervous and started covering their tracks with policy updates and training. The top brass put money into PR and told beat cops to mind their Ps and Qs around anyone with a camera; however, they are starting to settle back into their old ways of using a dehumanizing bureaucracy and applying violent enforcement.

Who are we to blame them for doing what we’ve asked them to do? What we as a society expect of police is violent. It’s a bad job that doesn’t need doing. The invisible “bad man” is the need to grow a bottom line at all costs. He is sitting in the conference room at city hall weaving webs of lies and false promises that this time, the jobs will really come, and the water will really be worth it. The only thing a cop can do is show up too late and write a report. When we recruit cops we underplay the report part, so they’ll usually show up to the call hoping that this is the time they get to use the gun instead and that hope turns into mistakes. The wrong person gets shot, but saying that is wrong itself. Who is the right person to shoot? Who can the police be at war with other than the residents of the city they are sworn to protect? And who are we to call these violent enforcers into any situation at all? We let our internal fears get the best of us. We thought about Barnie Fife instead of Derrick Chauvin and we let half our money go to weapons, troopers, and enforcers. Of the 2 Billion dollars a year Maricopa county spends on the justice system, courts, prisons and enforcement, how much of it has changed a single person’s life for the better? What dividends has it paid us? Where is our bottom line? It’s together in the streets, in communities, in care. They are militarizing the police to take everything we have.

Let’s not take it lying down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *