Clifton is a small, remote former mining town in southeast Arizona. Settled by prospectors and miners in 1872, and named for its cliffs, the town's first and last purpose was mining the region's abundant pure copper ore. Phelps-Dodge shut the mine briefly in August 1983, five weeks into a long, bloody strike that would drag on for almost three years. They re-opened the mine ten days later with "replacement workers" (this term came to supplant, during the Reagan era, the by-now obsolete and pejorative class-laden terms such as "scabs") and fired Clifton's unionized miners. The "replacement workers" became Phelps-Dodge's permanent staff, and live in company housing in nearby Morenci.
Since the end of the strike, Clifton's population has shrunk to barely 2000 residents. Still, it remains the center of the equally diminished Greenlee County, and so boasts a few municipal buildings and government jobs. The most impressive among these is the Greenlee County Correctional Facility, runner-up in the 1980 Arizona Architectural Association Awards (although, when I visited, I wasn't all that impressed: five visiting booths, an oblong-shaped lobby walled with bricks enameled in 70s orange and brown, now adorned with police memorabilia and American flags. Outside, there's a small concrete pad fenced with electrified razor wire that serves as the 'exercise' yard. Here, inmates are put out like dogs to receive their state-mandated 30 minutes exposure to natural sunlight per day.)
The first Clifton I'd visited was Clifton Forge, in western Virginia. That town was named for its founder, James Clifton, who'd opened an iron foundry in 1824. That Clifton was set in a valley, in the once-remote Appalachian Mountains. So when I got the call from Jamey, my boyfriend Paul's cousin, that Paul was being held in Clifton's Correctional Facility, I immediately thought of Virginia. Paul had been driving to LA from Albuquerque, New Mexico – had he missed a turn somewhere? Curiously, the only really friendly person I met when I got there – a sometime long-haul trucker named Bernie – also seemed to have taken a wrong turn. With $25,000 he'd either saved or received as a settlement, Bernie had set off from his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for central Montana. There, he hoped to buy a falling down fixer-upper and live out the rest of his days in relative peace (Bernie was 45, maybe 50). But somehow the road beckoned to Clifton – easily 1200 miles south of his destination – and now he was hauling a small pile of lumber out of his Chevy light-duty S-10. Bernie was the sole representative of what was described, on a plaque on a boarded-up bank across the street, as the Chase Creek Revitalization Zone. Everything else was abandoned. This seemed to suit him. Was he the next Ted Koczinski? Or merely a guy getting over a messy divorce?
Exit the interstate 80 for ten miles in any direction across the US and you will find thousands of derelict towns, each with their different and similar histories, all leading to this.
I arrived in Clifton on June 22, 2006, one day into what was becoming the Summer of Hate in the southwestern US. The country was gripped in a heat storm (if you watched ABC News) or a heat wave (according to Fox). The difference between heat "storm" and "wave" was like the difference between the terms "prisoner abuse" and "torture." For a year, the American media had been caught up in these semantic debates, which simply confirmed the impossibility of ever confronting any verifiable fact (the word 'verifiable' itself had become problematic, as anyone who's spent time doing internet research can attest … the proliferation of essentially false assertions through multiply cross-referenced citations made it suddenly possible for something to be both untrue, and verifiable. Many new businesses were founded on this.) The phrase 'heat wave' implied normalcy, whereas 'heat storm' suggested something freakish, disturbing, like portents recorded by midwives before the onset of plague.
What characterized this heat storm or wave was that the evenings didn't cool off. Temperatures remained over 100 degrees after dark. The poor were dropping dead in their trailers. Home Depots and WalMarts across the US were sold out of air conditioners.
Six thousand National Guard had just been dispatched by President Bush to assist the Border Patrol in catching illegal crossers, who would then be detained and employed in building an enormous wall. These detainees were to be housed in "concentration camps" (according to a correspondent for Television Espanola) or "forced work compounds" (according to local authorities), and a debate quickly ensued about the use of the word "concentration." In fact, the "forced labor" idea was already being effectively used by Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had reintroduced chain gangs throughout the County's jail system.
My Life Sucks and So Should Yours, had come to define public opinion when it was canvassed on penal and migration policy. In Encinitas, California a small band of lower-middle class whites gathered each Saturday morning to heckle a much larger band of indigent migrant day laborers outside a gas station. "Remember 911!" a fat wheelchair-bound woman waving a placard screamed. Inexplicable anomalies reigned. Should the Border Patrol wish to, they could have packed up their night-goggles and motion-detection computers from the Sonoran desert and simply arrested these bewildered, illiterate, malnourished Central American and southern Mexican men who had come seeking work but were mostly camped out in the canyon between luxury tract-housing estates. These men, let me emphasize, were the most wretched of illegal migrants. Their betters – able-bodied, bi-lingual Mexican men from the northern provinces – lived in one-bedroom apartments in working class border towns like Chula Vista and National City, which, due to the exploding SoCal real estate market, nevertheless rented for $1200 p/month. They slept at these places in shifts, split the rent 4 or 5 ways.
On Wednesday, June 20, New Mexico felon Paul Garcia was pulled over for speeding on Route 170 north. Formerly known as Route 666, the name of the two-lane highway was changed when residents canvassed state highway authorities in the wake of three fatal shootings that took place during the 1983-86 strike. That week, Route 170 was being used as a detour while roadwork took place on Interstate 10. Upon running Paul's license, the officer discovered an 11 year-old bench warrant issued in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, for Failure to Appear at a court date that had already been three times postponed for a Class 3 Felony Charge (Leaving the Scene of an Accident Where Grievous Bodily Injury Has Occurred). The warrant made him a fugitive.
Paul hadn't known the warrant was active. Neither had the parole board, which had released him from a Las Lunas, New Mexico prison less than two years ago. Paul was still on parole from the New Mexico felony (Class 3, Fraudulent Use of a Credit Card), a conviction that resulted when Halliburton Industries, his former employer, pressed charges against him for running up $1200 on a gasoline credit card they'd failed to suspend when Paul bagged the job. Paul, a recovering alcoholic, had been driving one of their trucks in Farmington, New Mexico for nearly a year when he relapsed after breaking up with a girlfriend. During a beer and crack binge that lasted six weeks, he'd used the card to buy gas for friends. Charging half-off the pump price, Paul netted out about $600, which he used to buy beer, drugs and groceries.
Except for a few DUIs, the credit card thing was Paul's first (non-violent) offense. (I would like to state for the record that I, a white woman formerly of the bohemian class, have stolen at least 50 times that amount over the years and maintain an unblemished criminal record.)
Paul was on his way to Los Angeles to attend summer classes at UCLA.
Mr Garcia I'm going to have to ask you to step out of the car, please.
I'm going to have to ask you to turn around please.
Mr Garcia, you're under arrest.
Paul knew he was back in a familiar country when he felt the sting of the metal cuffs click tightly over his wrists.
The first thing I noticed after arriving in Clifton was the palm trees. Tall, sensuous palms that seemed to come out of nowhere, fed by an underground river. At 3500', the town was a tiny oasis from the unbearable 120 degree Phoenix heat.
I'd driven four hours from Phoenix the night before, stopping only in Globe to pick up "three pair white tube sox, three pair white boxer shorts" from the WalMart. These were the only things I was allowed to bring to the jail – books weren't allowed. The socks and shorts came in packs of four, and I worried about this, because the deputy warden had said over the phone that the "packages for these items must remain fully sealed." I wondered about his use of the word "items." Like "issue" and "stated" and "incident," it seemed like a word often used among people outside my circle. People whose lives sucked, who went to work everyday and watched a lot of TV.
The palm trees felt like a gift - soft, extravagant things that didn't belong there. They grew at the edge of a well-maintained park at the base of a hill behind the motel. With its elaborate Victorian bungalows - nostalgic, even at the time of their initial construction, and completely unsuited to a hot climate – Clifton reminded me of western Australia, with its alien notion of civic pride erected in exile. My car was the only out-of-state plate in the Rode Inn motel parking lot. I walked over a bridge into a cluster of what were once mineworker's houses. Visiting hours at the jail were three days a week. I visited Paul for the first time between 4 and 5 on Friday.
Don't talk about the case, was the only common advice among all of the lawyers I'd consulted during the last two days in Phoenix. It was well known that conversations held in the visiting booths (over phones, on two sides of a plexiglass window) were routinely recorded and monitored. Anything said could be used against Paul by the State as additional evidence. Don't talk about the case, I told Paul, over and over. He was wearing one of those orange prisoner's jumpsuits, the kind you see on TV, and as I recall, he'd been handcuffed for the very short walk between the large, dorm-style cell and the visiting booth.
Vengeance shall be mine, said the Lord. Since meeting Paul a year and a half ago, I'd become increasingly curious about: a) the exponentially large number of non-violent petty criminals held in private and public prisons throughout the US, and: b) the narrowing of the public mind to a point where these people were considered to be part of a breed lower than animals.
Paul and I had watched a CNN special on "American Prisons" a few months before back at his place in Albuquerque. The show was enlightening in several respects, but what stuck in my mind was how it functioned as allegory. The "journalist" was a cute, young and 95 pound Asian-American woman, perfectly groomed in her two or three changes of Burberry pants and skirt suits. She was, of course, an animae-version of "us." The prisoners – "them" – were burly unshaved white and African American men dressed in orange jumpsuits. (Shaving, which requires the use of forbidden razors, takes place at most once a week, under strict supervision.) Their towering size and demeaning garb established the visual message. The Burberry girl was stupid in all the right ways, projecting the kind of quiet smug arrogance that derives from an intelligence formed by memorizing answers to multiple-choice questions.
In the interest of realism, more on-screen time was devoted to the movement of prisoners from their cells to the day-room in handcuffs and chains – the proffered arms, the bent heads – than to the actual 'interviews,' whose questions were framed to allow only two types of response: remorse and resentment. I remember reading about Nelson Mandela, how he'd refused to wear prisoner's clothing for the first several months of his imprisonment, enduring weeks of solitary confinement – "I am not a criminal" – until the wardens finally caved in. I remember how certain smart politicians and public figures used to respond, "I disagree with the question," when subjected to the Burberry Girl line of interviewing.
I disagree with the question.
It is no longer possible to disagree with the question. Disagreement is not on the menu of multiple choice.
Paul and I held our palms up to each other on either side of the plexiglass, just like they do in the movies. I cried a bit, to see him like that, and he tried to explain, but I told him Let's not talk about the case, to every question that he asked me.
He'd heard from one of the night guards that the warden was thinking of letting him go. He'd already been there three days and Greenlee was two inmates over its legal capacity. What's more, since the ten year old warrant for Paul's arrest had been issued by the Maricopa County Municipal Court, they couldn't arraign him, they could only hold him in Greenlee, there was no way he could be let out on bail. Moreover, the guys in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department had been real cunts when they picked up two Greenlee suspects last month, wanted, respectively, for Grand Auto Theft and Bad Checks. Instead of moving them back to Greenlee for trial – which would have two guards trained in transport procedures including CPR, firearms handling, restraint application, first aid, radio procedures and codes, and a caged van traveling more than four hundred miles – they'd simply released them, and who knows where they were now? Let the fuckers come get Paul themselves, reasoned the warden. And if they refused, releasing him might be a pretty good payback. At least that was what Peace Officer Dominic Madera surmised. The system was full of anomalies that either worked for or against you, and this one gave us hope.
Weeks later, Paul gave me the pen that he got from one of the guards. He was allowed to write letters. It was a special prison pen, unlike any pen I've seen before: three inches long, about ¼" in diameter, it's almost impossible to write with. By holding it firmly enough to use, you instantly bend it. The pen wraps itself around my finger as I press down with my thumb, and the only way I can write is by stretching my hand horizontally above the paper. The pen is the only tangible thing Paul brought back Clifton. I've never cared much about the field known as 'product design,' but this pen is a brilliant assertion of petty meanness.
* * *
On June 30, 1984, union miners in Clifton held a community fish fry to mark the Phelps-Dodge strike's first anniversary. A salsa band played. The company had already hired "replacement workers" but no one really believed that this would be permanent. The union still held a 24-hour picket line. That day, a hundred Arizona state riot police marched down Highway 666 from the mountain to 'restore the peace.' Someone yelled "Get the fuck out of my town" and a bottle flew out of the crowd, who were then sprayed with tear gas and shot at with rubber bullets.
More than 20 years later, it's hard to believe that the "right to strike" was ever protected by law in America. That it was once illegal for employers to shut down a strike by simply replacing the strikers. Phelps-Dodge was the first corporation to do this. Hundreds of companies followed their lead. Ronald Reagan, of course, had disbanded the Air Traffic Controller's Union five years before, but that was under Federal Transportation emergency regulations. Unions brought lawsuits against these private employers under the 'right to strike' law, but these suits (held in Circuit Courts, and heard by Reagan-appointed judges) were most often declined or dismissed. By the time the issue finally arrived at the Supreme Court, it was decided that striking workers walked off the job at their own risk.
According to Jonathan Rosenblum, "American labor history ended in the 1980s on the desolate highway of Clifton." Another one down the memory hole. Growing up in New Mexico, Paul turned 18 the year of these shootings. When we talk about unions and strikes, he asks: Why shouldn't a company have the right to hire whoever it wants to?
* * *
Three days later in Clifton, one of the night guards woke him up at 2:30 in the morning. They handcuffed him in the cell, then walked him out to a small holding area, where Peace Officer Madera, assisted by Peace Officer Crowe, attached leg irons to each of his ankles and a belly chain around his waist. Madera then looped a lead chain between Paul's ankles and handcuffs to his waist. Finally, they placed a black metal box between his two hands so he could not move his arms, or even his wrists. Thus shackled, Paul hobbled outside to a caged Greenlee County Correctional Van that was waiting for him in the driveway.
Paul arrived at the Maricopa County Jail Processing Center six hours later, where he was photographed, fingerprinted, and given the jail's regulation black-and-white striped Keystone Cops uniform with the words "Sheriff Joe's Inmate" (a nice comic touch) stenciled on both sides of the tunic. There, the uniform grins, we've gotcha now. To wear underneath, Paul was issued one pair bright pink boxer shorts, to match the jail's pink metal cuffs. "Jail should be punishment," Arpaio once said. From Intake, Paul was moved to the holding tank – one room, four concrete benches, one open toilet, 45 inmates (some of whom had been there more than 24 hours). Some hours later, Paul's name was called and he was moved to Unit 4B. He was overwhelmed by the sight of the massive cluster of cages stacked one on top of the other, everything metal and concrete, like a space colony gulag he'd seen on a sci-fi show on TV. Almost immediately, he was approached by a tattoo'd inmate, Martinez. "Hey – Your name is Garcia? You can sit with us." Us, being Latinos. Paul remembered being afraid. He remembered two or three things he'd learned in New Mexican prisons about showing respect, avoiding protection and holding your ground. He'd observed how the bill always came due to those who accepted protection. He had no idea what kind of shit went on in Unit 4B but it was likely some pretty bad shit, not just stivs, maybe guns maybe knives, but he didn't have to think about this for long, because soon his name was called by a guard and they took him down to the court for arraingment.
The Scottsdale lawyer I'd hired had been checking up on Paul's case twice a day. He met Paul in court, where Paul's name was called first on an alphabetical list that included many Alonzo's, Brown's, Coranado's, Delgado's. The lawyer and judge said a few words, and Paul was released on a very low bail. By the time he returned to the tank, one of the lawyer's assistant had already posted his bail, and delivered some cash and a fresh change of clothes. Paul walked out of the jail, hailed a cab and drove from Phoenix to Scottsdale, where the lawyer's assistant had booked him a room near their office at the Gainey Suites Inn hotel.
Ecologically designed in Southwestern Modern, the Gainey Suites Inn attracted the kind of Republican clientele that may not have necessarily voted for Bush in 2004. Paul tipped the driver, checked in and put his bag down on the king-sized bed's white duvet comforter. He was dizzy. The shower was hot. Vertiginous with the sense of complete reversibility, Paul lit a cigar and stepped out on the balcony overlooking the black-bottomed pool.