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WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Tale of two stadiums

November 2, 2007 | Page 9

SHARON SMITH explains how race and class loomed large in the California fires' aftermath--just as in New Orleans.

WHEN WILDFIRES raged through Southern California last week, George W. Bush flew into action. The unfolding disaster presented the perfect opportunity for the unpopular president to finally recover from the public relations disaster that exposed the Bush administration's indifference toward New Orleans' Hurricane Katrina survivors two years ago.

This time, the White House carefully choreographed every detail of Bush's visit to Southern California. Fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger joined him in a back-slapping press conference, praising Bush for "quick action--quicker than I expected, I can tell you that."

Bush, in turn, praised Schwarzenegger. "It makes a significant difference when you have someone in the statehouse who's willing to lead," Bush said, in an obvious jab at Louisiana's Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, as if she obstructed federal evacuation efforts during Katrina.

The mainstream media has dutifully lapped up Bush's every orchestrated photo op and sound bite. There was Bush, abandoning the luxury of Air Force One that once whisked him over the wreckage of New Orleans, slumming it in a helicopter as he viewed the charred California landscape.

When the presidential motorcade arrived at San Diego's devastated community of Rancho Bernardo, Bush emerged with sleeves rolled up as if eager to help with recovery efforts. While cameras rolled, Bush embraced distraught resident Kendra Jeffcoat, while telling reporters, "Those of us who are here in government, our hearts are right here with the Jeffcoats."

Soon thereafter, Bush climbed back into Air Force One to return to Washington. Mission accomplished.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, however, took their stage management of media coverage one step too far in a potentially embarrassing incident.

On October 26, FEMA's deputy administrator Harvey Johnson called a news briefing--giving journalists just 15 minutes notice beforehand. Not surprisingly, no reporters were able to make their way to attend, but several television networks broadcast a live feed nonetheless.

The "reporters" asking questions turned out to be handpicked FEMA administrators feeding Johnson a prepared repertoire. One "reporter" asked, for example, "Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?"--to which Johnson responded, "I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far."

Ultimately, a few diligent reporters exposed the phony press conference, but the scandal quickly disappeared from news headlines.

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INDEED, MOST news outlets focused on the contrast between the squalor and neglect experienced by Katrina survivors at New Orleans' Superdome and the seemingly idyllic conditions at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.

"There was a banh mi picnic in the parking lot, beef empanadas on the chow line, Caesar salads, cartons of fresh Starbucks House Blend, free magazines, toys for the kids, cots for grandma, pizza by the slice or, if you wished, the box. There was a man playing jazz guitar, a blues band, massages and acupuncture," gushed the Los Angeles Times on October 24.

The mainstream media conveniently overlooked the real story of the California wildfires. Just as in New Orleans, race and class loomed large--even inside Qualcomm Stadium. Suburban whites exited the stadium en masse in midweek, leaving poorer and nonwhite survivors behind. And the atmosphere inside the stadium changed decisively when Border Patrol officers arrived to harass and deport immigrants.

As the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium described, "Yesterday [Wednesday, October 24], the police initiated an immigration enforcement action that was contrary to their policy of not calling in Border Patrol/ICE unless and until they file a formal criminal charge against a person.

"Police detained approximately 12 evacuees (at least four were children) who they alleged were 'looting' donated blankets, food and toys for the children." Six family members were deported within hours.

Although both San Diego Police Department officials and Border Patrol agents initially claimed the detained immigrants had confessed to "looting" (reminiscent of accusations against New Orleans' desperate African Americans in the aftermath of Katrina), the ACLU noted that none of those deported was actually charged with robbery by San Diego police.

The San Diego Union-Tribune initially repeated the looting charge, while defending racial profiling: "[B]ecause some members of the group spoke Spanish, officers called Border Patrol agents who were at the stadium for relief efforts. They determined the people were in the country illegally and arrested them."

Without retracting its initial claims, the Union-Tribune later admitted that none of the deportees had admitted to stealing anything--nor were charges filed.

But the deportations, however unjust, offered the excuse for authorities to patrol the stadium, demanding evacuees to show "proper identification." ACLU immigrant rights attorney Andrea Guerrero estimated that up to 1,000 people were forced out of the stadium because they lacked proper identification, according to immigrants' rights activist José Fusté in an October 27 post to the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center.

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BUT MOST migrant workers never made it to Qualcomm Stadium. Indeed, even as others evacuated dangerous areas, many farmworkers continued to labor in fields as ash rained on them because their employers did not allow them to leave.

The New York Times reported on October 27: "'There were Mercedeses and Jaguars pulling out, people evacuating, and the migrants were still working,' said Enrique Morones, who takes food and blankets to the immigrants' camps. 'It's outrageous.'"

Christian Ramirez from the American Friends Service Committee commented, "Some farmers are not following evacuation orders and have kept workers in the fields despite orders being given to evacuate."

Many migrant workers without papers who turned to authorities for help found themselves deported on the spot. By Friday, October 27, Border Patrol agents claimed they had arrested 100 immigrants since the fires started.

Those now returning to their evacuated homes face military-style Border Patrol checkpoints when they try to return, aimed at "detaining and handing over people suspected of being undocumented to U.S. Border Patrol," according to the San Diego ACLU.

As Fusté remarked, "People need to know that the same way that the government doesn't care about Black people in New Orleans, it also doesn't care about immigrant families in California."

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