Friday, April 23, 2010

History in a Closet

from 1987 brochures.

NPR just tweeted a story about an envelope found in the Cochise County courthouse late last month. Inside was a series of handwritten eyewitness accounts from a coroner's inquest into the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881. NPR published one of the badly-yellowed, tape-damaged pages in PDF form, and I couldn't resist doing a dramatic reading for my own amusement of the words found there. Here it is, verbatim:

"...and there was 3 other gentlemen who some one told me was the Earps. Mr. Holliday was standing next to the buildings on the inside he had a gun under his coat he had on a long coat and I The way I noticed the gun is that his coat would blow open, and he would try tried to keep it covered. I stood in the door until these gentlemen passed and until they got to the second door and what frightened me and made me run back I heard this man on outside kind a looked looked at Holliday and I heard him say let them have it and Doc Holliday said Al right before I could get from the door then y I thought that I would run and run towards the back of the shot but before I reached the middle of the shop I heard shots - I don't know how many. an

I don't know who said give it to them I can not describe the party it was one of them that was with Holliday. -- Mr. A King"

Dramatic stuff, and like most Americans my age who grew up with Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, et al. I find the whole Tombstone legacy fascinating and kind of cool. I've written before about the appealing historic kitsch of The Town Too Tough to Die and its sometimes laughable attempts at tourism, like the tiny figure of an Earp falling down with an audible clack during the Historama show. That was over 20 years ago, so maybe it's all high tech and flashy by now rather than endearingly low-tech. I should go back and see. Back in the days of non-digital cameras I took lots of pictures of the tombstones, drank sarsaparilla in the bar and toured the Bird Cage Theater. I'm clearly overdue for a return visit, especially now that Father Ireland of St. Michael's is now the Vicar of Tombstone. People from St. Michael's sent him down there with a cowboy hat, a tin badge and GPS.

But there's the thing I want to say about this. Much as I love Tombstone, and tales of the Old West recounted at the safe distance of well over a century, I don't consider the ethos of that time a good model for modern Arizona, or anywhere else. Those were the days when Cochise and Geronimo and other native leaders were unable to protect their people from the white folks who had taken over their lands, either through negotiation or through wars and skirmishes that included horrific acts on both sides. They were the days (well, okay, it was 20+ years later) of Pancho Villa, that famous, charismatic and controversial figure in the days of the Mexican Revolution. A century ago, and for a few decades before that, people in Arizona thought nothing of wearing a gun for a walk down the street, and arguably really needed to do so. Those were days of racism and individualism, of local sheriffs in conflict with US Marshalls, of a hundred little mines springing up with a hundred little towns around them, and no particular thought given to safety or sustainability.

Those days are gone, or should be.

Carly's been asking me to say a few words about the stupid, bigoted goings-on in the Arizona legislature recently that have made Arizona both the nation's laughingstock and the object of horrified scorn. All I can tell you is hey, it's not my fault. You've got to remember that Phoenix is largely Republican, as are some of the rural parts of the state. Together they outweigh Tucson Democrats at the state level, and we are unable to prevent the state from doing stupid things, such as passing a "birther bill" requiring Presidential candidates to come to Arizona, birth certificate in hand, before getting on the ballot; a law that allows concealed weapons inside bars as long as you're not drinking, and a newer one that allows a concealed weapon statewide without a permit.

Worse than any of these is a newly-passed bill the new Governor, Jan Brewer, has not yet vetoed, requiring Arizona cops to demand proof of citizenship of anyone "reasonably suspected" to be an illegal alien. You've heard of being pulled over for "driving while black?" Try "breathing while Hispanic." That's where Arizona seems headed, despite pleas from churches, public officials, newspapers and law enforcement organizations. The law was proposed by State Senator Russell Pearce, a right wing xenophobe who has posed for pictures with a notorious neo-Nazi white supremacist, so you just know he's got the Right on his side, one way if not the other. What makes this especially outrageous is that Arizona is 30% Hispanic. Brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking (often bilingual) people have lived here since long before Arizona was a state. We have plenty of Hispanic U.S. citizens whose families have lived here all that time, including, for example, the Ronstadts. We also have legal immigrants, and Mexican residents who legally cross the border to go shopping and then return home. And yes, we have undocumented immigrants too, sneaking across the border for the privilege - if they survive the dangerous desert crossing - of picking lettuce in Yuma or working some other job most Americans would not want.

Back when Janet Napolitano was the Governor of Arizona, she would veto nonsense like this "papers please" bill, but then she accepted the post as head of Homeland Security. All we can do now is hope that all the unflattering attention, demonstrations and phone calls in opposition to the bill will shame current Governor Jan Brewer into vetoing it. If she doesn't, expect the first lawsuit about an hour later.

Somebody needs to bring people like Russell Pearce into the current century. This isn't the Wild West, and this isn't a war of the white people versus the brown people. That kind of thinking should be as outdated as a shootout between Earps and Clantons. The time is long past for societal conflicts within these not-so-United States to be settled at gunpoint. We're better than that.

Aren't we?


Update: Gov. Brewer signed this horrible, terrible bill into law today. Please read Episcopal Bishop Kirk Smith's open letter on the subject: An open letter to our Spanish-speaking Arizona Episcopalians

1 comment:

Carly said...

Hi :)

EXCELLENT writing! Your gov. just made it law, and now GA is considering a birther law. JEEEEPERS. As you know, I live in a state with a republican gov, but even he isn't this batshit (pardon my progressiveness just then) America has gone to a sad, sad place. Please continue to write more about your observations, you are good at it!