Monday, February 21, 2011

Photo essay: Why Brisenia Flores matters

[A portrait of Brisenia Flores at the Community Center near her home, where she played daily.]

-- by Dave

I drove out to Arivaca, Arizona, on Tuesday, the day after a jury convicted Shawna Forde of two counts of first-degree murder in the home-invasion shooting deaths of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father, Raul Junior Flores. I went to take some pictures, look around, and get a feel for the landscape, both physical and cultural.

Mostly, I wanted to see how the murders had rippled through the community, because distant rural places like this are always tight-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else. Everyone I talked to used the same word: "Devastating."

A woman at the community center just down the street knew Brisenia and her mother -- who did volunteer work at the center -- very well. She pointed to a picture of Brisenia hanging on a main beam inside the center, a black flower attached to a corner, and explained, "She came here every day." Brisenia, she said, was bright and sweet and devoted to her parents, as they were to her.

The murders, she told me, took place only two days before the start of the community center's annual summer camp, where Brisenia always enrolled, and where all the kids in the camp knew her too. The center brought in grief counselors to try to help the kids understand what had happened to their classmate and friend. She said she kept trying to explain to them that they were never going to see her again, and they couldn't grasp it. Finally, she said, she had to simply tell them straight out that she was dead. And then everyone cried.

"It was horrible," she said.

Arivaca is a little ranching community where the main activity is at the feed store during work hours and at the mercantile and bar the rest of the day. It mainly exists for services to ranchers in the Arizona desert. And it is only 28 miles, by the road to Sasabe (and slightly shorter as the crow flies) from the Mexico border.

Thus, it used to be quite a popular thoroughfare for border-crossing immigrants, but everyone in town told me that most of that had gone away in the past couple of years, thanks to an intense increase in the presence of the Border Patrol in the area. And it was true: I passed a Border Patrol checkpoint going to and from Arivaca, and encountered probably 20 different BP vehicles in different locales along the 23-mile drive between the town and I-19.

The immigrant traffic also drew people like Shawna Forde -- people who hated immigrants crossing the border from Mexico and were determined to stop it. And so a little girl whose parents, and grandparents, and their whole extended family, had grown up American in Arivaca wound up becoming a victim of the radicalism and hatemongering turned to violence that always, inevitably accompanies the Nativist mindset.

The Flores' home was just down the dirt road from the community center about a mile, part of a rural neighborhood that northeast of the town itself, a bunch of small homes spread out on large tracts.

The place had been mostly cleaned up since the tragedy, but there were little signs outside: plastic roses placed on the door the killers had come through; a child's lamp, and a sign for a garden, and a teeter-totter. All the signs of a normal, simple, sweet life suddenly ripped away by something monstrous from out of nowhere.

When a sweet, innocent life is cut short like this -- especially by an act as monstrous as this one -- it always horrifies us, just as the case of another Arizona 9-year-old slain by a madman, Christina Green, has resonated deeply with the public. And so often in such cases, the monstrousness and the tragedy simply overwhelm us, leaving us to throw up our hands and decide that it's beyond our understanding, that there's no explaining such events.

But there's no such mystery about what killed Brisenia. We know. We can see it clearly. And we need to be talking about it.

The people who broke into her home late at night while she was sleeping with her new puppy on the living-room couch and cold-bloodedly shot her in the face while she pleaded for her life were people who did not see her, or her father or mother, as human beings. They were people who had become so accustomed to dehumanizing Latinos that they didn't care about the devastation they brought to Arivaca and the lives of this family. They were so consumed by hate that they had no humanity left themselves.

The dehumanizing language of scapegoating and eliminationism -- the naming and targeting of other humans for the supposed social ills they incur, followed as always by words urging their excision from society, if not the world -- is endemic on the American Right. And among right-wing extremists, it intensifies, grows and metastasizes into something lethal and monstrous.

You can hear this very language in Shawna Forde's 2007 appearance at a Yakima "town hall" forum on immigration:

Cerna: Shawna, let me ask you about the issue of economics. You've heard constraints from growers, you know, that the apple harvest is very important in this state, particularly in this region. What do you say to the growers?

Forde: We've got a prison system. Let's utilize it.


Forde: I'd like to see two things on there. Not just about the people who came here legally, and are here legally, but how about the Americans who have been affected and died because of the illegal invasion in our country? How about our sovereignty?

And securing our borders and protecting our nation is extremely important. And I know the Minutemen and many organizations will not stop -- we will start at the local level and work our way up -- we will not stop until we get the results that we need to have.

This kind of language is not particularly rare -- indeed, it is common on the American Right, particularly the Nativists who are eager to deport all of the nation's undocumented immigrants, and it's endemic to the Minuteman movement in general, where you can find similar eliminationism at every corner, including people like Chris Simcox:

I feel that the people that are coming across, invading this country, I think that they should be treated as enemies of the state. We need to putting them in work camps. Anyone could walk through these borders of this country bringing bombs, chemicals, weapons of mass destruction. I think they should be shot on sight, personally.

And their many followers:
No, we ought to be able to shoot the Mexicans on sight, and that would end the problem. After two or three Mexicans are shot, they'll stop crossing the border and they'll take their cows home, too.

The mainstream media, particularly the folks at Fox News, have refused to recognize that this is what's occurring. Indeed, even at CNN, the only cable network to adequately report on the murder of Brisenia Flores, it's completely ignored and glossed over. As C&L commenter Karen noted:

No one is bothering to expose the actual ideology of this woman or her splinter group, or how they don't care about Mexican life.

.... The reporter calls this a "tragic and strange story." Tragic yes. Strange? Why? It's actually (sadly) banal. This shit goes on all the time. Murders like this happen every day. The only strange part is the involvement of splinter Minutemen, but that angle isn't pushed. It's the only angle that makes this a socially relevant story, and it's glossed over like a tangential fact. Like the real story is the heartless shooting.

As the folks at Presente observed after the verdict:

Though we received a verdict that condemned these atrocious murders, we also recognize that the Brisenia Flores’ case is not the isolated incident that some media reports make it out to be. Rather, it has galvanized the attention of the entire Latino community across the country as it reflects the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino hatred organized by extremist groups. Latinos – the fastest-growing and largest ethnic minority group in the U.S. – understand and experience the phenomenon of hatred that has rapidly expanded in the nation. In fact, Latinos are closely watching media outlets that provide a platform for hatred promoted by extremist groups like MAD and the Federation for American Immigration Reform – a group Forde represented on a PBS show, for instance. Latinos are closely watching those media outlets that irresponsibly allow hateful groups attack to Latinos and immigrants, fanning the flames of fear and violence in our communities.

The details revealed in the murder trial have touched us all in a deep and unique way. These important details reflect the deepening and mainstreaming of the most noxious and dangerous strands of hatred in the United States. They move us to continue efforts to make sure there are no more hate-crimes and to take action in condemning media outlets that help disseminate hatred.

In life, Brisenia Flores was ordinary and happy little girl living in the Arizona desert. In her tragic death, she has become a powerful symbol of our own lost humanity.

The bitter fruits of dehumanization always strike at our hearts. If we choose to turn away, we can easily focus on the pain and not on the meaning. But if little Brisenia's death can transcend that choice -- if we look it in the face and understand how this happened, and why -- then it will not be nearly so meaningless.

[Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.]