Caging poor people: Occupied Land Truth Tour through Southwest Turtle Island

Caged

by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray-Garcia

“I’m not sure where they are taking us, but I am praying it is safe,” said Marta as she sat in the back of the Greyhound bus near the bathroom along with over 20 other families who had been “escorted” by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies onto the bus me and my sun were taking to El Paso. When I tried to ask what was going on, the bus driver barked at me – that we’d better get on the bus, “Now.”

This was just the beginning of what I called the Occupied Land Truth Tour, and we were already witnessing that the Greyhound Bus corporation had gone into the amerikkklan business of transporting houseless indigenous refugees to plantations called detention centers.

“We are from Guatemala. We are hoping to join our family here, but we don’t know what will happen,” said Marta, her voice trailing off as the bus driver eyed us in his giant rear-view mirror.

Tiny and Tiburcio (far right and left) met this family in a Greyhound Bus Station in Arizona. They were fleeing the police profiling of their autistic son. – Photo: Tiny

“Those illegal aliens have it good, playing soccer and getting free food …” Before readers jump to pink skinned white people spewing this Trump-like hate, be warned, this and a long list of racist, classist hate-filled comments came from a series of melanin rich Raza, Indigenous and Black working class men and women my sun Tibu and I encountered on our Occupied Land Truth Tour through Southwest Turtle Island last week.

I launched this humble #TruthTour because the scarcity model violence of conservatorship to sweeps to the theft of belongings of unhoused people from San Francisco to St. Petersburg and the border violence against indigenous unhoused people crossing the colonizer borders are all rooted in the settler colonizer culture of this occupied land. To explain that, I’m slowly working on my newest book: “Klan Vibes and Settler Colonizer Lies: A Decolonized Travel Guide Through Occupied Land.”

Indigenous children and families are “escorted” by the sheriff onto a Greyhound bus in Deming, N.M., for transfer. – Photo: Tiny

I’m working on this new book because we all need to see clearly through the emergency we are in with homelessness, gentrification and borders all over Turtle Island and to do that we need to understand where and how it came about and that, like I often say, there is nothing new under the settler colonial sun. As well, it was my dream to prove the deep ways our struggles are connected and intentionally disconnected and the ways in which poor people’s struggles across Mama Earth are also so deeply connected with Mama Earth’s destruction aka climate change.

Scarcity models, land and resource theft, historical revisionist lies, racism, classism, hate and shame for poor peoples are what informs the worlds of service provision, borders, politricks, laws and even care-giving in the U.S. Why? Because that is how you keep capitalism, land-stealing, resource hoarding and extraction going. It is also how in cities from Las Cruces to Los Angeles, service providers, police, politricksters and government agents have “logically” progressed to putting unhoused people from both sides of the false colonial borders in outdoor cages. Yes, I said cages.

In this difficult journey, what we didn’t expect to find is the deep ways that people of all colors, cultures and classes who have pieces of paper which say they are so-called “citizens” of this occupied land not only ascribe to the hate, unquestionably believe the histories of theft and washed genocide, but defend them. I guess this is what academics call hegemony, but for myself and my sun, it was like having a horror story narrated.

A caged child, all alone, who speaks no English, studies his “caregiver.” – Photo: Tiny

“Homeless people are just lazy, and these illegal immigrants are criminals and lazy,” said an Indigenous, Afro-Latinx older man.

Three months ago as part of the Poverty Scholarship Book Tour, POOR Magazine family of homeless and formerly homeless poverty skolaz had witnessed with our own eyes outdoor cages on the sidewalk filled to the brim with unhoused U.S. “citizens” in the occupied Seminole territory known as Florida. The cages for unhoused U.S. “citizens” (whatever that means) weren’t created by police; they were created by non-profiteers.

The Truth Tour was focused on uncovering the roots of the hate that so many of us houseless folks deal with every day in amerikkka, so although we had only the money my part-time elder care job paid which allowed us a Greyhound bus ticket and some cheap motel rooms, we decided to visit the location of the other caged people – this time in the Southwest.

A cactus writhes – or dances – in the Superstition Mountains near Apache Junction, Arizona. – Photo: Tiny

“This area is controlled by us and we are trying to keep a sterile environment,” said the annoyed border agent. On our first day in El Paso we went to the areas where children, families and elders were incarcerated in outdoor cages.

On the first leg of the tour on the Greyhound bus from Mesa, Arizona, to Las Cruces, New Mexico, we witnessed several refugee families surreptitiously being transferred from a sheriff’s cargo van into the back of our bus. When I tried to film it, the bus driver demanded I get on the bus, even though Greyhound states clearly that you have the right to document the transfer of illegal aliens. Yes, it does say that.

Premature baby born in detention center dies in mother’s arms

On our way into the occupied Pueblos, Zuni, Apache and Pima territories, aka New Mexico and Texas, the sightings of violence began to pile up: A professor had walked into an open gate under the bridge that connects Juarez and El Paso and “found” hundreds of refugee children and mamas and families sitting in an outdoor cage, in the 100 degree weather. Folks had been there for days, weeks, months, without any way to shower or acquire medical care or healthy food.

“We are all connected whether we are from this side of the false border or the other.”

After his finding, which was literally a few days before we arrived, a court case was filed and ICE was pressured to move folks, hide folks or further intern folks, but more secretly. Who knows where they went, but when we arrived, there was a small line of folks left under the bridge and a whole battalion of police cars lined up in front of the fence where people used to be or could still be – locked gates and guards protecting the entrance and a windowless building which had three air holes emanating screams and what sounded like hundreds of dogs barking.

“I heard that you were keeping my fellow human beings in cages out here. Would you like to comment?” I asked the ICE officer when we arrived at the secret gate, which I walked up to.

This rustic old church is in the ghost town of Goldfield, Arizona. Note the Betsy Ross flag, a symbol of white supremacy. – Photo: Tiny

“This is government property. You have to leave,” the gun toting, taser having ICE officer said, caressing his gun and taser at the same time, and repeated, “You have to leave now.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to comment,” I pressed on even though he began to walk way too close to me.

“You need to leave now,” he repeated with a blank stare.

Not revolutionary Jesus

“Those illegal aliens need to come here legally,” said Not-Revolutionary Jesus, who we met in an Uber. He was a melanated Raza, Indigenous, disabled man spewing Trump love with every palabra. Come to find out he, like almost everyone we met, was filled to the brim with colonial love – internalized racism and plantation prison admiration.

He had offered to drive us to the “bridge” where they were holding indigenous families in cages and the whole time, he continued to spew racist, ablest hate. “Those homeless people just need to get a job. It’s called lazy; that’s why they aren’t working.”  And then using the “fake news” card right out of Trump’s deck. “They aren’t holding families in cages. You can’t believe everything you see, cause that would be inhumane.”

Me and Tibu showed him the pictures in the local media, published for all to see, but he wouldn’t believe it. Then he called his son in law, a Customs and Border Patrol agent – of course, almost everyone we met worked for them or used to work for them or the police – and he confirmed what we said was true. And then Not-Revolutionary Jesus just got quiet and said, “Oh.”

Non-profiteers, missionaries and poverty skolaz

“We don’t want any of the immigrants contaminating the homeless and the homeless contaminating the immigrants,” said the executive director from the one homeless shelter that exists in Las Cruces, New Mexico, who went on to explain that this was the rationale for their decision to stop providing beds for homeless refugees from the other side of the false borders that ran through that city.

Tibu and me were trying to be peaceful and not lose it at this moment. He went on to refer to unhoused folks as “The Homeless” and indigenous refugees as “The Immigrants” throughout our conversation, i.e, defining us by our lack of access to a roof or “papers” as though that was all we were. Which of course we challenged them on which left them looking somewhat confused and annoyed.

This scarcity narrative about how there isn’t enough for everyone to go around ran through the entire town. The poltricksters, wealth hoarders, non-profiteers and middle class media had done their job well. Everyone we spoke to, from a series of painful bus, cab and Uber drivers to service providers to unhoused people themselves, kept repeating the hegemonic narrative that indigenous homeless refugees (so-called migrants) were “taking” this plethora of imaginary services, stealing all of the only 50 beds that existed in this town, food and fun from the “homeless” on this side of the border. (Disclaimer: I’m making the homeless connection no-one here did.) This poor against the poorest story, and straight up racism, fatalism and amerikkklan belief narrative ran deep through this town and every other one we visited on our humble Occupied Land Truth Tour of Southwest Turtle Island.

“Our problems here aren’t so much the police – although they do tell us to move all the time and take our stuff, we are usually able to get it back – it’s the people who are supposed to be helping us,” said Sadie, one of the unhoused poverty skolaz who we spoke to when we crossed the street to walk over to the health clinic and location of lunch service at The City of Hope.

“Ever since the immigrants came, they have charged us $7.00 for a bedbug ridden bed to sleep in,” said Mary, another unhoused poverty skola. “They say they helping the poor. They aren’t helping us; they are collecting money from us and about us.” And again lest you think the last speaker was a wite houseless skolaz, think again. Houseless and housed folks of all colors were hating. The new Jim Crow is alive and well in Southwest Turtle Island and its poverty and paper that separates you, follows you and defines you.

But how do these lies lock in so well: false borders, false poverty, false profits, crabs in a barrel hate? Let’s go back in time …

Superstition Mountains

Cactus bodies writhed and shouted, screamed and cried, danced and sang a song with no melody accompanied by imaginary drums. A song filled with prayers of ancestors and unwritten herstory of genocide. They were silenced but not static. And each breath of hot desert wind carried their messages far up into the sky and over the afternoon sun.

To understand the violent present, you need to look into the violent past or at least the lies that keep the past in place. Which is why the Truth Tour began with the history un-packing – determined to visit as many anthropology museums, archives, memorials, gift shops and “ghost towns” as we could fit in the short time we were there.

We drove up through occupied pueblos and Pima territory cacti and held their stories in our hearts. And with each turn of the road we got closer to the magic the colonizers called “superstition mountain,” a huge series of peaks and valleys leading up to a jagged top. It had a different view from every side and it seemed to be so close it was almost around you.

At its base was a place the settlers called The Lost Dutchman ghost town, essentially a temple to the violent krapitalist industry of extraction, aka an old mining town. At the base of the Lost Dutchman with the requisite bank, jail, church and saloons. Oddly enough, as is the case today, there were literally three to four saloons on every block, the bank was the cleanest, nicest building and the church was at the peak of it all – holding the lies in place.

As is always the case, the land stealers and colonizers washed the pesky genocide, slavery, racism and land theft right out of their hair. As is always the case in the settlers’ monuments to the removers and killers and murderers and rapists. In the little museum there was barely a mention of First Peoples of that land. Rather there was a series of pictures of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Cody and all the actors from 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s Westerns who played them – John Wayne, Robert Redford etc. There was a vague mention of the “cliff dwellers” in the Superstition Mountains.

Cowboy code

The oddness of course was the flagrant hypocrisy, using the revolutionary known as Jesus to enslave and destroy and steal and hoard, the very things Jesus was never about. Claims of truth, honor and honesty that lined the walls of their spaces, including a weird “cowboy code,” which was on the outside of the church stating among other things – “No Killing, No Stealing What Isn’t Yours and No Coveting” – proving that in herstory as now, they had to believe that indigenous peoples were not human like them, or they couldn’t get away with the atrocities

Mesilla, New Mexico

We also visited Mesilla in New Mexico, yet another site of washed herstory. In this “quaint,” well-preserved town there was barely a trace of the original peoples of that territory But there was plenty of fetishized and stolen iconography such as “Indian” visual arts and crafts by white women appropriating Zuni imagery and selling it for hundreds of dollars in art galleries, war bonnets on the wall of the gift shop like they were trophies from the heads of First Peoples and endless pictures and stories and images of the settler colonizers like Billy the Kid, who were lifted up for their involvement in gun culture and criminality against each other.

Mama Earth was burning … The mountains were crying

Along the way the Greyhound bus route went through towns and reservations and Mama Earth showing the by-product of pillage and rape, and trauma and treaties and extraction and destruction. Including the ongoing struggle to preserve the Apache stronghold and the sacred site known as Oak Flats located near Globe, Arizona, as anyone who knows the story of that fight knows.

This poverty skola had the blessing of praying and walking on the sacred camp ground in 2015 when we traveled there. “This is sacred ground and the corporations want to destroy it like everything else here,” said Duke Romero to POOR Magazine back then, The struggle and resistance continues today like it has for 100 years.

Meanwhile the mountains surrounding and below Oak Flats cry in pain and leak white mucous filled tears, with a pipe hooked up to the mountain so the fracking could continue. Every single mountain in that area is stripped down to its bones by extractive industries with pipes leading out of its backbone spewing an endless stream of smoke.

We cried and prayed as we rolled through past those tortured mountains, holding Mama Earth as we do our mamas in our hearts and souls.

People fleeing violence and starvation find no refuge at the border. – Photo: Tiny

Sadly this smoke wasn’t the end of the smoking mountains we encountered. As we entered El Paso, we witnessed not one but three inexplicable fires, which we later found out were more corporate destruction and yet another fracking plant.

Archives with washed history

Our last stop on the #TruthTour was at an anthropology museum called Chamizal – yet another collection of washed removal (not what they called it). It’s a museum inside a huge park that lauded all the wonderful moves by “explorers” and white scientists and developers and politricksters to lock in another piece of paper (treaty) that gave thousands of miles of indigenous territory to both Mexico and the US, causing the removal and displacement of literally thousands of homes and people from the area surrounding the Rio Grande.

In the Park District-funded museum that me and Tiburcio visited, there was literally one vague reference to the First Peoples removed by both of the colonizers and one line about the happy removed people who, according to this archive, had no story, no face, no part of this paper theft.

Familias Unidas del Chamizal

“We live on the border in the El Chamizal neighborhood, one of the poorest neighborhoods of El Paso, and the City acts like our neighborhood and our school and our children don’t matter, said shero warrior for the people Hilda Villeagas from Familias Unidas del Chamizal, who spoke to us on PNN-KEXU radio about their fight against a 100 year old poltrickster supported a recylcing plant that had a huge fire when we were in El Paso, the second in less than a month.

“We have been fighting for our lives and our children’s safety for years and we aren’t going to give up. PNN-KEXU vowed to stand by these warriors for justice and support them in any way we can.

Last day in this stolen land

“None of these people claiming anyone isn’t an ‘American’ was born here, so what are they even saying? It’s so wrong. We are all connected; none of us are better!” said Jacob, the last Texas resident we met on our last day in El Paso. He was a member of the Chippewa nation. He overheard us talking about everything and chimed in with healing words that gave us hope. Me and Tibu looked at each other in shock, someone who actually saw the truth.

Yes, we are all connected whether we are from this side of the false border or the other.

Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – is the author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights, and co-author of “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth,” just released on poorpress.net. To reach Tiny, go to her website, www.lisatinygraygarcia.com.