- Created: Thursday, 21 May 2009 14:30
- Written by Steve Palmer
The US state of Oklahoma was born in 1907 from a final frenzy of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. Now, with the blessing of the Bush administration, Oklahoma is celebrating its centenary year with a fresh wave of ethnic cleansing, this time by driving some 20,000 Latinos out of the state.
How the West was really won
The first phase of the European invasion of North America led to the settlement of the eastern seaboard. Rivalry during the 18th century between capitalist Britain, France and Spain, in continental power and colonial conquest, culminated in British victory in the Seven Years War in 1763. By Crown Proclamation, the British declared that that lands formerly occupied by France in North America (‘New France’) would be incorporated into a vast swathe of inland territory, stretching through present day Canada to the tip of Florida – the ‘Indian Reserve’.
The Indian Reserve blocked the settlers’ westward advance. To the fledgling capitalists of North America, this was one further impediment by the British Crown to their unhindered expansion. The American revolutionary war was fought by the settlers, not only for independence, but also for removal of restrictions on further settlement on native territory. Inevitably, although many tribes and nations were divided over British rule, the majority of the native population sided with Britain in the War of Independence. When the British were defeated, without consulting their native allies, they ceded former French territories to Spain.
The US repudiated the Proclamation. This set the stage for the ‘Indian Wars’, a series of conflicts between natives and settlers culminating in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This led to the more or less forcibly ‘negotiated’ removal of the native population to the west and by the 1880s they were concentrated in ‘Indian Territory’ reserved for resettled tribes. This was basically the same territory as modern Oklahoma. Indeed, the state gets its name from the Choctaw name for the native population: okla humma – ‘red people’.
Once again, native Americans were betrayed and their land expropriated. In a series of ‘Land Runs’ between 1889 and 1895 – known as the Land Rush – native land was seized for settlement. This led to the final destruction of communal land custody and its replacement with private ownership. The ‘frontier’ had now been closed. This episode culminated in statehood for Oklahoma on 16 November 1907.
Many fugitive slaves had found refuge amongst the native population and had also sought to settle outside areas of European settlement. As the frontier closed, the settlers set about terrorising black Oklahomans and instituting segregation. Although the state constitution avoided mentioning strict segregation, the spirit of the new state was clearly expressed in the very first piece of state legislation: Senate Bill Number One. Anyone with any African ancestry was declared black. ‘Intermarriage’ was declared a felony offence, as was ‘miscegenation’ – so-called ‘race mixing’. This discrimination was only declared illegal – by the Federal Supreme Court despite Oklahoma’s resistance – in 1967. Schools, railway stations, bus depots, churches, hospitals, restaurants – all were segregated, including even phone booths and cemeteries. Terrorism against black people came to a head in the Tulsa pogrom of 1921, which killed hundreds of black people and burnt black neighbourhoods to the ground. Lynching and other forms of racial terrorism continued for many years. It was only with the victory of the civil rights struggle that formal discrimination was driven out.
The 2007 pogrom
This rich racist heritage has fuelled the current attacks on Latinos. State Representative Randy Terrill, an extreme conservative Republican, has steered House Bill 1804, the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007 into law. The Bill was supported by Democrat legislators and signed into law by the Democratic Party governor of the state.
Under this law:
• It is a felony offence, punishable by a minimum of one year in prison and/or $1,000 fine to shelter, transport or employ any illegal immigrant.
• It is an offence to issue identification to any illegal immigrant – even library cards, driving licences and union cards. Up till now most states have been relaxed about checking applicants’ immigration status when issuing driving licences, which are universally accepted as ID within the US.
• All new hires must be verified using US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) systems. DHS is responsible for repressing immigrants.
• Anyone charged with a felony or driving under the influence must have their immigration status verified. If they’re undocumented, they will not be eligible for bail and the DHS will be notified.
• Anyone who fires a US citizen or permanent resident while continuing to employ illegal immigrants is engaging in discrimination.
• Public benefits are denied to anyone aged 14 or over who cannot prove they are lawfully resident in the US.
• Local authorities and agencies must cooperate with and not impede the hunt for illegal immigrants.
• No state aid for higher education, including scholarships or tuition payment is permitted to illegal residents.
The Act has bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans. It was carefully crafted to navigate around typical legal objections and has so far survived legal challenges.
It’s not about legality – it’s about racism
The racist motivation behind the Act is evident: the same people who supported this Act are now trying to enforce English as the state’s only official language, despite the fact that there are native speakers of at least 27 different languages resident in the state. A steady campaign blaming undocumented residents for crime, drug-smuggling and murder has been conducted by Terrill. They are also alleged to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits. Terrill conveniently forgets that crime has no nationality: his ideological companion and fellow white supremacist Timothy McVeigh committed the worst act of home-grown terror on US soil: the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 and injuring more than 800 people.
Slavery was legal, segregation was legal – but they were unjust. And so is this vicious racist Act. Indeed many of its provisions recall the Fugitive Slave Act, designed to punish anyone who aided fleeing slaves or who refused to return them to their owners.
If Oklahoma is allowed to get away with this, numerous other states will follow. Georgia and Arizona already have legislation targeting employers, which is undergoing challenge in Federal courts. Terrill’s Act will be mimicked in numerous other states – he is already advising lawmakers in other states how to write this kind of legislation. It is the most serious attack on the US working class in years. Quite apart from issues of basic justice and humanity, if this succeeds it will hold back the political struggle in the US for years. The consequences will be further repression of undocumented immigrants and of activists who support them; it will further divide the US working class and make political organising far more difficult; it will distract attention from the inroads the ruling class makes into civil and political liberties. The US economic crisis will require further attacks on the working class: further cutting of living standards and more unemployment. The US ruling class relishes the possibility of a divided working class blaming the most exploited section for the problems the ruling class has created.
This legislation is forcing the issue of immigration to the top of the political agenda, in an election year. Although immigration is a federal responsibility, over 1,400 bills concerning immigration have been introduced into legislatures in all 50 states – more than double the number last year. Since more than 180 have survived to become law, the line of defence has been through the court system. Perhaps the courts will save the day? So far it hasn’t worked and legal objections have been thrown out. The Oklahoma Bar Association is protesting against the arrest and detention of lawyers in Pakistan, but is silent about these attacks on undocumented workers in their own state.
Where is the fightback? Typically and tellingly the Democrats support this Act. No serious political opposition can be expected from the Democratic Party. When front-running US Democratic candidate for President, Hilary Clinton, was confronted over drivers’ licences for illegal immigrants, she refused to give a straight answer. If Democrats can’t support issuing drivers’ licences they’re not going to defend illegal immigrants over these far more serious attacks.
The US left seems completely asleep about the issue, not even reporting it, never mind campaigning against it. Yet Oklahoma is ideal for a US and international sanctions or boycott campaign. Boeing produces wing assemblies there; Firestone and Michelin manufacture tires, Coca-Cola has a huge plant there. Mexico did $431m business with the state last year; Canada about $1,600m. If Terrill and co don’t want Latinos in the state, we shouldn’t be subsidising it in any way – they have stuck their necks far enough to reach the chopping block: it’s time to teach them and their supporters a lesson.
Steve Palmer, US correspondent
FRFI 200 December 2007 / January 2008