Anti-racism, sustainability and conflict in Tucson, Arizona. Some thoughts.

I appreciated this article that came out this week about Tucson Arizona, USA,  a city I lived in for three years (2001-2004) when teaching at the University of Arizona.

Jenna M. Loyd 2012. Human Rights Zone: Building an antiracist city in Tucson, Arizona. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 11 (1): 133-144.

I generally liked the University, and the natural environment was extraordinary,  but was always a bit ambivalent about the state itself and the city (sorry, friends there). There were three reasons.

  1.  Tucson must be one of the most unsustainable cities in the US (despite being home to some good sustainability initiatives). Never heard this said, but I am sure it is up there in the rankings. Water supply is the persistent problem. With rainfall usually under 100mm per year, edible crops to satisfy 1m people cannot be grown without irrigation. Most of the local surface and ground water is overdrawn, so most food and water are brought from elsewhere (some local irrigated farming esp. to the west). Fresh food and staples  come mostly from the big Mexico irrigation schemes or from California, with very little local production.   The Santa Cruz River through the city now only has water in it during the summer monsoon. Loss of flow began early-  “By 1910, all of the water flowing in the Santa Cruz River near downtown Tucson was being diverted for agricultural or municipal uses“.  Groundwater abstraction during the growth of Tucson caused slumping,  as underground sediments dried out due to over-pumping. Much of the water supplying the city now comes from the CAP canal, bringing water across the desert from the Colorado River in an open culvert hundreds of miles long, and injecting it into groundwater west of the city to allow for Ph mixing and recharge.  Municipal consumption of water outweighed agriculture by the year 2000.   There are other big dryland cities in the world without local supplies of food and water of course,  but none quite like Tucson.  Tucsonans are good at saving water, and esp. since the Beat the Peak conservation campaigns in the 1970s, many having abandoned wasteful features like lawns and pools, but the growing population is often unaware how fragile their desert existence is, despite the work of many environmental organizations and the water supply boards.  Real estate developers, until the big recession of 2007 slowed them down, just keep on building large homes with no public transport, and high energy use, regardless.  Domestic water tanks are rare due to the low net rainfall. The Sustainable Tucson site admits the city cannot feed itself, and is reliant on ‘just in time’ warehoused fresh food, usually stockpiled enough for only three days ahead.  Despite all this, the local paper published a blog entry  in Feb 12 opposed to “sustainable development” as a principle and philosophy. Says it all – Tucson is a city of contradictions.
  2. The transport system and grid layout is car-centric.   Driving everywhere is normal. I have never driven to work more than one or twice a year in any of my jobs, and hopefully never will. I loved the BICAS bicycle re-cycle project in town but it was a drop in the ocean. The city was built such that the good residential views, and the cheap housing lots, require some form of transport to get to where stuff is – jobs, schools, shops.  4x4s infest all parts of the city, bumping into each other in car parks, mooring to drive-in windows, and collecting very small people from nearby schools.  Worst of all, left parked up with engine running, to maintain the air conditioning – something that should be outlawed.  The University itself has vast expanses of car parks and showed no sign of diminishing them, despite some enlightened transport planning efforts. The city bus service was not great, through it won an award in 2005. We never bought a car and travelled locally on bikes, although we did have a long-term loan of a famous yellow 1980s Toyota belonging to Prof Jan Monk. It was this car in which I took my wife to the hospital where my son was born, and in which we all returned home in scorching temperatures in May. [note: there is a short volunteer-run tram going to the University,  and they may extend it]
  3.  I took the political mood in Arizona to be heading in directions I did not like in the early 2000s, in view of my upbringing in suburban SE London under Margaret Thatcher and on a racial fault line. Like the prolific analyst Patrick Bond, who grew up in Belfast and Alabama, racial and ethnic divisions concern me quite a lot. I was in Tucson when 9-11 happened in 2001 – I was teaching just after, in fact. The University response was good. It hosted ‘witnessing’ hoardings where you could paint or write support for the families touched, and there were many outpourings of grief. We discussed the issues widely. But racist incidents and attacks on foreigners escalated in southern Arizona in late 2001 (although more in Phoenix than in Tucson) and I heard plenty of xenophobic comments in that period. A Vietnam Vet told me to “love the US or leave it”. Remaining, and being critical was clearly not an option he embraced. Leaving aside Native American politics for the moment, the immigration issue was ever-present, as it has been for decades, being 100km from the US-Mexico border. I went to places where the dangerous crossings of economic migrants from Mexico  took place, where I know in addition to the Border Patrol there were occasionally some so-called “patriot” American vigilantes stationed at night to “observe” the situation. With guns, which you are allowed to carry in AZ. I also met members of Los Samaritanos, on the other side of the political faultline, who leave water in the desert and assist desperate would-be immigrants abandoned by their ‘runners’. Deaths from dehydration  are frequent.  Not what I was used to from years spent rather less on the political edge in Massachusetts. Since we left Tucson for Australia, just before my final H1 visa was due to expire, Arizona politics has moved further to the right and Jenna Loyd below describes it as being on a dangerous “front line” in “struggles over security and belonging”.  For example there is official anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican sentiment. The teaching of Mexican American Studies has been banned in Tucson K12 public schools by the School Board. Why? I am not really sure. And various books in school have been banned by TUSD since Jan 12, since they somehow offended the political right, which some of my colleagues find extraordinary. Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed banned!! The last 3 months have seen continued opposition to this HB 2281 law. Also the statewide Arizona Senate Bill 1070 has been hugely controversial, ” the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent U.S. history” allowing police officers to ask about the immigration status of those they stop, and to arrest those without papers. This  has made international headlines since 2011 because it is  a deliberate attempt to deter those without residence papers from remaining in Arizona –  thus a form of  ‘border deterrent’.  Some issues about Arizona’s immigration are raised here.

But the other thing Loyd points out is that cheap land and the existence of the border close by have made this a military town as well, with bases and defence contractors. And it sounds as if the residents are feeling that presence, alongside continuing poorly planned economic development and environmental pressures. The political and economic situation since 2001 has certainly done little to deter xenophobic reactions among a small part of the populace, or stopped some elected officials from implementing divisive policies. The article reminds us that Tucson has a fault line, as well as being on the front line of these issues. On one side of this line many, many residents and businesses oppose the excesses of the Republican state government and the actions of  the political right in southern Arizona education and other sectors, as she describes and champions. I went to many events and met many people who feel it is their duty and desire to oppose racism and to stay put and enjoy, rather than leave, this part of the US.   Good luck to all the positive initiatives in an extraordinary place.


Jenna M. Loyd 2012. Human Rights Zone: Building an antiracist city in Tucson, Arizona. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 11 (1): 133-144.
A good quote: “Tucson is a paradoxical place. Although 60 miles from the international boundary, it is a militarized border city. The infrastructures of war-making are prominent in the landscape and jets and police helicopters circulate in the desert skies above. It is a place living through an undeclared war that is invisible to many and applauded by some. It is a college town proud of its progressive commitments in a state whose politics are dominated by the right. It is also home to a wide range of organized opposition to government experiments in border security and migration regulation, many of which are implemented elsewhere. Tucson is not exceptional, but it does foster unique and enduring organizing that can inform political efforts elsewhere.”


1 Comment

Filed under AZ, Tucson

One response to “Anti-racism, sustainability and conflict in Tucson, Arizona. Some thoughts.

  1. We Buy Houses Tucson AZ

    thanks for sharing this wonderful post.

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