SB4: The Result of a Pre-Existing Power Dynamic

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Texas is a notoriously bad place to be poor, brown, black, trans, queer, a woman, or all of the above. In this regard anything coming out of the Anglo male-dominated state legislature is regarded as always already bad news. However, every once in a while the usual stream of bad news coming out of the Texas legislature is punctuated by a particularly bad piece of news. A few years ago this was the two anti-abortion bills SB5 and HB2, which drew thousands of protesters to the Texas Capitol to try and prevent their passage into law—this attempt failed, though HB2 has since been overturned by the Supreme Court.

Nowadays it is SB4, the “show me your papers” bill, and SB6, the “show me your genitals,” or “bathroom” bill that dominate headlines. Though they are both heinous examples of Texas’ neo-colonial style of government, it is SB4 which interests us here for now. What is it, and why the uproar?

"In the field, however, where such laws are actually applied, the law basically legitimates a cavalier approach to policing. It promotes a terrifying legal atmosphere of mass deportation and nativist, white nationalist, cop-activism."

SB4, signed into law in May 2017 and going into effect in September, is essentially a law designed to whip state and local law enforcement into working with La Migra. Against “Sanctuary City” style law enforcement, in which the police chief or sheriff would simply opt out of co-operating with ICE, SB4 makes it illegal to do so. A civil fine of 25k a day, removal from office, or a class A misdemeanor await any law enforcement officer who fails to comply with federal immigration officials. This, at least, is the letter of the law.

In the field, however, where such laws are actually applied, the law basically legitimates a cavalier approach to policing, exemplified in the scenario of a cop asking a Latinx person to “show me your papers” at a routine traffic stop. Officers are not required to ask for papers, but at the same time, their bosses are not allowed to prevent them from doing so. In other words, the bill raises the already high threat of deportation at any given moment regardless of actual threat to the civil order. It promotes a terrifying legal atmosphere of mass deportation and nativist, white nationalist, cop-activism.

Accordingly, the law has drawn popular opposition, though at a lesser scale than the previous cycle of Capitol protests (for now, more demonstrations have been promised). In the courts, the city council of San Antonio will likely sue the State Government over the law, and Austin has more or less confirmed their intention to do so. Other Texas cities joining in is probable, and intervention from the Supreme Court is not out of the question either.

Still, the relatively small backlash against the bill on the popular front is curious, and although there’s been some encouraging developments, it still leads to critical questions. Is the bill already effectively carrying out its function and terrorizing Latinxs from intervening in public in large scale? Or is the liberal community tired of going to protests in a state where defeat seems eternal? Maybe undocumented Latinxs are already living under an unofficial version of SB4, so does its legal passage seem inconsequential?

"Laws like SB4, though they are terrible, are only ever possible after the consolidation of a pre-existing power dynamic. It is this power dynamic itself that must be torn apart if we are ever going to experience genuine good news in Texas."

Whatever the answers, it’s clear that SB4 is only a contemporary expression of a much longer racial history in Texas, and the South more generally. Though the domination of a racialized majority by a white minority has roots in the settler-colonial (i.e. Slaver) foundations of the US itself, the situation has an additional complexity when it comes to the second class-citizen status of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, specifically in Texas.

Here, the political revolution in Mexico and the agriculture revolution in South Texas both roughly coincided in the early twentieth century to produce a situation in which the refugee status of Mexicans fleeing the civil war was abused by Anglos who created an intricate, and often terrifying, social system used to control their movement and bodies. The overall goal, then as now, was the maintenance of cheap and expendable labor force to be summoned and dismissed at will by Anglo business owners on the endless quest for super profits.

Though this history may seem distant, it is actually present with us every day and continues to shape the institutions and resistances to the institutions of contemporary power in every possible way. As always, the only true way to stop the pain is to strike at the source, and laws like SB4, though they are terrible, are only ever possible after the consolidation of a pre-existing power dynamic. It is this power dynamic itself that must be torn apart if we are ever going to experience genuine good news in Texas. Until then it’s small crowds and SB4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…. n.