November 2, 2007

Divided by Fire: Two San Diegos Emerge from the Flames

By Justin Akers Chacón

As the popular saying goes, the 8 freeway divides San Diego County between the haves to the north and the have-nots to the south. The Great Firestorm of 2007 that has scorched half a million acres, destroyed 2,300 structures, and displaced several hundred thousand people, has unmasked the even deeper fissures that cut through “America’s Finest City.”

While the fires were still burning bright, the Republican Chain of Command—from George Bush to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders—declared “mission accomplished” and an end to Hurricane Katrina syndrome.

As Department of Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff told CNN, the federal response to the wildfires was “phenomenally better” than the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “because we have been preparing and planning and training together for the last 2 ½ years.” As Bush gleefully proclaimed during a photo-op, “the experts can try to figure out whether the response was perfect or not.” During their carefully charted victory tour, the reality facing most San Diegans was factored out of the equation.

While the southern California wildfires do not discriminate against peoples and property values, the machinery of preparedness and hands of recovery certainly have. Hundreds of thousands of San Diego’s inhabitants have been excluded, ignored or persecuted during the relief efforts, and will be forced to bear the costs of this systemic failure into the foreseeable future.

The Economics of Disaster

According to former San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman, San Diego County officials learned nothing from the 2003 fires and have continued to starve funding for prevention. This has been driven by a desire to preserve (and create) extra wealth for the region’s richest inhabitants, who have come to rely on private services to meet their own personal needs.

As Bowman—a life-long Republican—explains “San Diego practices the biggest don’t-tax-me campaign I’ve seen” and describes this philosophy as “we can do more for less.” Bowman quit in 2006 over the unwillingness of the city to fund $100 million in new fire stations and equipment.

The city now has fewer than 1,300 firefighters (the same number as five years ago and after the 2003 fires, and who have not received a pay raise in 4 years), only one water-dropping helicopter, and the lack of county-wide departmental infrastructure to provide region-wide rapid response.

As UC San Diego Professor Steve Erie explained to the Los Angeles Times, “developers own most of the city councils. In Poway, in Escondido, what they do is put homeowners in harm’s way. They’re able to control zoning processes, and they’re frequently behind initiatives that say no new taxes, no new fire services. It’s insanity.”

The guiding philosophy behind this exchange of need for greed is referred to as neoliberal economics. This includes efforts to shrink the public sector, privatize services on a for-profit basis, and the increased empowerment of local, state, and the federal government to redistribute the social fund back into the hands of the wealthy. This trades short-term gain for long-term calamity, witnessed in the (preventable) environmental catastrophes now becoming commonplace. In absence of a safety net, the costs of disaster are transferred to the most vulnerable, low-income victims.

For most wealthy residents of San Diego County not directly affected, the fires have been little more than an inconvenience. One La Jolla Doctor described her difficulty finding forms of entertainment for her family while the county burned. Complaining to the Union-Tribune, “[She] went through the list: the beach, the tennis club and local parks were all quickly rejected because of air quality…They finally decided on Chuck E. Cheese.”

For working class families, effects of the fires have immediate consequences that can be devastating. Most workplaces shut down, some for a whole week, depriving them of much-needed paychecks. As one displaced worker asked a volunteer at a donation center, “What can we do once were turn home and we are asked to pay our rent? I haven’t been able to work all week and I could not come up with all of my rent money I am afraid of being evicted when I get back to my apartment. I am also concerned with not having enough money to buy food while I get another job.”

Deported While Seeking Aid

After opening up San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium to evacuees from around the county, thousands of displaced families converged on the home of the Chargers, seeking shelter under its massive, layered decks. A cursory walk through the corridors of the giant shelter revealed the magnitude of generosity of ordinary San Diegans, who donated in droves.

People donated food, schools donated books, toys and other materials and teachers donated their time to organize activities for children. Also present were musicians, artists, masseurs, and throngs of volunteers offering help and services. The festival-like atmosphere became quickly offset by the looks of destitution and hopelessness. A survey of the some 10,000 people housed and tents and on rows of cots revealed mostly poor people—disproportionately people of color—already thinking past this temporary reprieve to a future of uncertainty.

The sense of community was shattered on the third day when the police and Border Patrol detained a Mexican family for allegedly “looting” donated goods. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the overt racism directed at black Hurricane Katrina survivors, the extended family of 12 (including several children, of which one was a US citizen) was accused of “taking too much” by other evacuees, who promptly summoned the police.

After being detained and questioned for three hours, and being unable to show proof of legal residence, the police called in the Border Patrol to conduct an “on the spot” immigration inspection. While the “inspection” was being conducted, a news cameraman was physically prevented from filming the incident and a Spanish-speaking volunteer seeking to translate for the family was harassed. Ultimately, the family was briskly deported to Tijuana, after law enforcement reported that the family “admitted” that they intended to re-sell the goods.

According to a report filed by prominent immigration lawyer Andrea Guerrero for the Immigrants Rights Consortium, “AFSC spoke to the evacuees in Tijuana today and they say emphatically that they never confessed to this. There are no witnesses to this alleged confession…All of the local media outlets regurgitated the law enforcement line about looting, despite being advised by witnesses that they had seen something to the contrary.”

Immigrant Rights activist Irma Córdova was outraged what she saw when investigating the conditions for Latinos at the stadium after the incident. “Once they arrive, some are treated like criminals simply for looking Latino and in some cases for not being able to communicate in English. It is unbelievable to me how in a time of crisis some people can still be so hateful and racist.”

Kept in the Fields While the County Burns

While the County of San Diego had implemented a “Reverse 9-11 evacuation system” which facilitated the relocation of over 500,000 inhabitants, millions more were left behind in the pecking order of priority.

According to ABC News, two million undocumented workers living and working in the 24 fire zones stretching from LA to San Diego were excluded from the coordinated evacuation efforts. Their segregation and second-class status keeps them “off the grid,” and renders them non-entities in society.

Around the county, migrant workers have remained or been kept in the fields while surrounding environs have been evacuated. In most cases, the people are simply ignored or factored out of evacuation plans; in others unscrupulous employers have chosen profits over well-being in the disaster equation.

Jesus Gomez from Oaxaca was working at a nursery when the “Witch fire” pushed into sight from the east. His crew kept working while wind whipped smoke and ash in their eyes. “They gave us masks, but still, our eyes were filling with dirt and ashes. So, we keep working [until] the police came in,” he told National Public Radio.

Community pulls together (while under attack)

While Latino immigrants have been the excluded and persecuted in the rescue efforts, there is no shortage of media time devoted to their criminalization. A survey of news stories from the local press excludes the stories and perspectives of the Latino community, instead choosing to perpetuate false hearsay of “looting illegals” and entertaining racially-motivated connections that blame immigrants for the fires themselves.

One story, completely ignored, has to do with the way the Latino community came together to help out their fellow San Diegans. Activists and community members turned historic Chicano Park—located in the heart of a Latino immigrant community—into a bustling collection and distribution center. Over the course of several days, truckloads of food, water, clothes, toys and other essentials were distributed across the county, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship status.

Motivation came with need, according to organizer Greg Morales. “I was sure that those who lived beside me in the Barrios of San Diego felt much like me - yet it seemed that the media had presented San Diego as a ‘white’ only environment in which only the people north of the 8 [freeway] were of concern or in a position to help and make a contribution.” All told, the community effort distributed over 100 truckloads to those in need.

This contrasts with the efforts of the Red Cross, which fell in line with the institutionalized racial profiling, requiring that all recipients of aid at its centers show documentation. So much food aid and volunteers came in from around the county that the major depots stopped accepting donations by the third day of the fire.

This tremendous act of solidarity in a time of tragedy and need did not prevent the anti-immigrant “Minutemen” from harassing and trying to disrupt the efforts. Small groups of vigilantes repeatedly taunted and threatened the volunteers, often right in front of observing police officers. With no “angle” to attack the efforts, they tried to provoke violence and accused the organizers of looting the donations from elsewhere.

The out-pouring of racism and anti-immigrant hate stands in sharp contrast to the actions of people south of the border. Mexican authorities sent four fire engines to San Diego and distributed electricity after fires cut a main power link from Arizona and threatened the main power corridor that connects San Diego to the rest of California.

As Capt. Marco Antonio Garambullo, Tecate’s Fire Department director told the Associated Press, “It is very important for Mexico to cooperate with the United States in situations like these because these fires affect the environment on both sides.”

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