If at First You Don’t Secede...

Category: Hot Topics Issue: February 2013
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Another year, another half-cocked secession “movement.” As always, Arizona’s fringy separatist sentiments reveal fascinating things about its character

Former Arizona lawmaker Karen Johnson remembers the sneers and insults, the unkind op-eds and political cartoons. And for what? All she did was try to dissolve the federal government.
Back in 2000, Johnson – then a Mesa-based member of the Arizona House of Representatives – chaired the five-person committee that approved House Concurrent Resolution 2034, which granted Arizona and other states the right to “establish a new federal government for themselves” should the United States declare martial law, confiscate firearms or usurp states’ authority in matters such as abortion and public land use. Johnson’s committee ratified the resolution with a 3-2 vote.

Ultimately, Arizona’s recipe for secession died before it reached the House floor. Derided as a “total waste of time” by a dissenting member of the committee, the resolution brought down a firestorm of bad publicity on Johnson and like-minded Republican lawmakers. “There was so much ridicule that went on regarding that legislation, so much mocking,” remembers Johnson, now retired and living in Show Low. “So [Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost] said to table it.”

Ridicule and cold amusement are perhaps natural reactions to the issue of secession. For most Americans, it seems an utterly bizarre concept. After all, secession has a lousy track record in America. We fought a war over it. A generation of men died horribly. Who in their right mind would crave an encore performance?

Evidently, about 932,367 of us. That was the total number of digital signatures collected in the wake of President Barack Obama’s reelection in November, when a well-publicized wave of separatist petitions flooded the White House website. In boilerplate language, the 50 petitions asked the president to let their respective states “peacefully secede” from the Union. Arizona’s dedicated petition was started by a Gilbert resident identified only as “Nicholas M.” It was like Johnson’s dissolve-the-government resolution, refashioned as a sticky Facebook meme.

Signed by a tiny fraction of the U.S. electorate, the petitions were widely dismissed as right-wing sour grapes, but perhaps less so in Arizona, which has seen more than its fair share of separatist sentiment over the decades. No matter how many constitutional scholars scoff at the notion, peaceful – and, sometimes, non-peaceful – secession remains an enticing fantasy for many in the Southwest. But exactly how serious are these anti-establishment “movements”? And what do they hope to achieve?

Arizona cannot claim to be the most secession-obsessed state. That distinction must go to Texas, where November’s post-election petition first surfaced and where well-organized nationalist groups – including one that issues its own novelty pseudo-Texan passport – have soldiered on for more than a century. Unlike its Confederate brethren, Texas actually tasted true nationhood in the 1800s. After winning her independence from Mexico in 1836, she spent nine glorious, single-and-sassy years as the Republic of Texas. The singles scene didn’t really sit well with the young republic, however – with the blessing of Texas President Anson Jones and the majority of her electorate, the country was annexed by the United States in 1845. Now she’s the Madame Bovary of American statehood – forever restless, always bedding down with the Rick Perrys of the world.

No Arizona governor has openly entertained the notion of secession, à la Perry, but the state has produced a robust and diverse chorus of separatist voices in its relatively brief history. In the ’60s and ’70s, Arizona experienced a wave of aboriginal nationalism – not as sustained and divisive as the native-first movements in Hawaii, but more effectual. Virtually any time a controversial political issue puts Arizona in the national spotlight, someone, somewhere encourages us to secede. It was a common talking-point during the SB 1070 furor, and resurfaced as recently as 2012, after major provisions of SB 1070 were struck down in the Supreme Court, prompting Fox News Radio’s Todd Starnes to fire off a Tweet asking “at what point should a state consider secession?”

As a territory, much of Arizona sided with the Confederates, which means we were earmarked for secession before we even became a state. We’ve also been the focus of reconquista fantasies, neo-Confederate nullification laws and internecine partition proposals. And the root cause is always the same: unilateral politics and large groups of folks who are – or at least feel – marginalized and put-upon.

Arizona’s original community – the Native Americans – was also its original aggrieved community, and subsequently one of the earliest to talk seriously about secession, culminating in the Navajo (or Na-Dene) nationalist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Led by Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, the movement ultimately led to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the end of federal assimilation efforts, but the activists’ original agenda was sometimes more radical, according to University of Arizona Native American studies professor Manley Begay.

“Although that movement was not similar to the talk of secession after Obama’s reelection, there was a variety of perspectives, as you’ll find in any movement,” Begay says. “That ranged from thinking about the Navajo Nation becoming the 51st state, all the way to becoming totally independent of the federal government.”

Begay notes that the Navajo Nation – the bulk of which rests in Arizona, but which also covers parts of New Mexico, Utah and Colorado – is “the largest of all American Indian reservations” and boasts a landmass and population comparable to the nation of Iceland. The raw dimensions of the reservation engendered “nation within nation” thinking and emboldened calls for independence.

Ultimately, isolationist elements within the Navajo nationalist movement succumbed to the more pragmatic wing, according to Begay. “It wasn’t realistic to be totally independent of the federal government. Every nation has to have a positive relationship with its neighbors. So to be an isolated entity within the most powerful nation in the world, that’s not a positive reality. I think what the movement achieved was much more significant: recognition of the Navajo as a de facto sovereign entity, a renewed feeling of self-determination, and specifically not to be so dependent on the federal government. They won the right to oversee their natural resources and tackle social pathologies that were rampant, instead of seeking answers elsewhere.”

One may argue that the Navajo nationalist movement was a pseudo-secession, and demonstrably successful in meeting its ends. Later movements would not be so charmed.

In 2010, the ratification of Arizona SB 1070 – derisively dubbed the “Papers Please” law by its critics – had the immediate effect of mobilizing massive protests by outraged Mexican-Americans and immigrants, and smaller counter-protests by border-protection advocates. It also inflamed extremist elements on both sides, leading to calls for secession – and they weren’t always shouted in English.

The term reconquista originated in Spain, shorthand for the slow, centuries-long expulsion of Muslim occupiers from the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages. In the 1970s, the term was co-opted by Mexican intellectuals to illustrate the rise of Latino immigration to the Southwestern United States. Just as the Spanish liberated their homeland from the Moors, millions of immigrants would “reconquer” the territories that Mexico surrendered to the U.S. with the ratification of the humiliating Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), reviving the nation of Aztlán, named after the mythic origin of the Aztec people who settled Mexico City.

Late Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes characterized reconquista as a half-humored analogy, not a policy platform, and few Latino thought-leaders use the term non-ironically, if at all. Mexican-American advocacy groups like MEChA and Derechos Humanos officially disavow it. But certain Chicano nationalists take reconquista quite seriously, complete with fiery irredentist literature and detailed secession scenarios.

So how would Arizona be torn from Uncle Sam and pasted into a Chicano ethnocracy? University of New Mexico professor/controversy magnet Charles Truxillo is known for promoting a reconquista scenario that fits the literal definition of secession. According to Truxillo, an Aztlán-like “Republica del Norte” – encompassing parts of northern Mexico, Baja California, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – is the inevitable outcome of Mexican-American regional dominance. Most likely, the new republic will be brought about not by Civil War, but “electoral pressure,” he told the Associated Press in 2004. Truxillo, who didn’t respond to an interview request for this article, is presumably alluding to the same kind of peaceful, voter-driven, Constitutionally-kosher secession envisioned by November’s petition-signers. If so, he’s just as deluded, experts say.

Truxillo bases his secession theory on wording in the Articles of Confederation of 1777, in which states retained “sovereignty, freedom and independence.” He contends that nothing in the U.S. Constitution supersedes those rights. Factually incorrect, according to his colleagues. “The Constitution does supersede the Articles of Confederation,” University of New Mexico history professor Daniel Feller told the Associated Press. “It takes no notice of the articles and is not presented as bearing any relation to them. The Constitution does not declare, recognize or in any way acknowledge the right to secede.”

Deprived of its legal footing, reconquista presents a less-than-menacing profile. Certainly, there are people on both sides of the border who relish the idea of greater political power for Mexican-Americans, but the term reconquista seems to exist mainly to incite outrage and grab attention for exteme elements on both sides of the issue.

Still, given that Arizona is the home of SB 1070 and ground zero in the immigration war – and projected to be Hispanic-majority by the year 2050, according to a report by the pro-enforcement Federation for American Immigration Reform – we have a feeling the term has legs.

It sort of makes sense that Navajos, or other downtrodden groups, would want to secede. But a 72-year-old white Mormon from Mesa? The United States is an unqualified success story. From humble beginnings, we’ve made a remarkably good run of things. We tipped the balance in two World Wars. Outlasted Soviet communism. Invented useful products like Post-It Notes and Scotchgard. The 20th century was the American century. That means something. Most countries never get their own century. It’s really rare.

Sure, we’ve got our problems, but it could be worse. Like, Greece worse.  

So why would you want to break apart the country when the unity purchased at such great cost by the Civil War produced such demonstrably good results?

“The country may appear to be successful,” Karen Johnson says ruefully. “But I think we’re going to fall like a piece of rotten fruit.”

By all accounts, ex-lawmaker Johnson was a popular and convivial member of the Arizona State Legislature and Senate during her 11-year career, but no one would call her the most sanguine. She vigorously disputed the findings of the 9/11 Commission and was convinced the nation was swirling down a black drain of totalitarianism. She still feels that way.

The way she remembers it, Arizona’s fruitless flirtation with secession at the turn of the century was a proportional response to gun control legislation allegedly supported by the Clinton administration. Then again, there was a lot of partition-talk swirling around Arizona at the time. “I can remember in the early days of [my career in] the House a lot of talk about splitting up Maricopa County,” Johnson says. “The far northwest part of the county wanted to be separate from Phoenix, and Phoenix wanted to be separate from them, and the East Valley wanted to be separate from Phoenix.”

Johnson also remembers “talk to let Indian reservations be their own county,” supported by some high-country communities that felt marginalized by Indian-dominant voting districts. “All of our Pinetop-Lakeside-Show Low area is part of the Navajo Nation [voting district]... where the non-Indian population is 18 percent... The redistricting cut us off from Snowflake-Taylor, so the people of Show Low have no representation at all.”

With those heady sentiments in the air, Johnson helped author HRC 2034 and – as the chair of the House Committee on Federal Mandates and States’ Rights – gave the secessionist legislation its day in the sun. Had it passed in the House, the resolution would have gone to committee in the Arizona Senate, then to another vote, then entered into the public record. (As a non-binding resolution, it would not require the signature of the governor.)

Johnson points out that HRC 2034 was no piece of lone wolf legislation. It would have granted Arizona the authority to dissolve the federal government only with the complicity of 34 other states, with each newly-liberated state owning its own land and incurring its prorated share of the national debt. Johnson and her allies insisted that the precedent established by Article VII in the U.S. Constitution – in which nine of the 13 original states dissolved the existing Union established by the Articles of Confederation – gives modern-day states the right to secede. Once again, mainstream scholars are dubious. “You can’t just... leave the Union,” Arizona State University constitutional-law professor Paul Bender told the Arizona Republic in November 2012. “There really is nothing in the Constitution that lets anybody leave. There’s stuff about adding states, but there’s nothing that suggests you can leave once you join. If anyone is serious about this, it’s the lunatic fringe.”

Johnson acknowledges that Arizona would face daunting challenges as a free agent. We have no coastline – ask Afghanistan how well that’s worked out – and might our large, undefended border leave us ripe for the plucking by our larger, more populous neighbor to the south? “Maybe we could join up with Texas,” Johnson offers, half-jokingly.

On the larger issue of American liberty, Johnson is dead serious. “I grew up in the 1950s, and it was a fabulous time to live,” she says. “But behind the scenes, things were destroying our Constitution and freedoms and liberties. We don’t have two parties anymore. They’re just two wings on the same bird. Their policies don’t change. The GOP will take us over the cliff just as surely as the Democrats. Just slower.”

The conversation turns to Ron Paul and, perhaps inevitably, the truth behind 9/11, chemtrails and the possibility of open insurrection if the federal government chips away at gun rights. “That’s the line in the sand... I just think they would not give up their guns.”

Johnson says she didn’t sign the November secession petition, but would have if she’d gotten the email.

Here’s a funny thing about separatist actions – they often follow the laws of physics, causing an equal and opposite reaction. Following the November secession furor, a Minnesota woman named Natalie M used the same White House petition web tool to lobby the federal government to build a Death Star. The petition – widely viewed as an ironic, big-government riposte to the secession issue – gained enough signatures to warrant official response from the administration. (Arizona’s secession petition, on the other hand, came up 889 names short of the necessary 25,000 signatures.)

Similarly, Arizona’s secessionist activity in the 2000s sparked a counter-movement – a Tucson-based partition drive to create a breakaway state called Baja Arizona. According to Start Our State co-chairman Paul Eckerstrom, the mandate was inspired by “some of the nullification statutes” that were being circulated through the statehouse. Supported at the time by Johnson and like-minded Republican lawmakers, nullification essentially empowers states to pick and choose which Federal laws to recognize. It’s been called a “soft secession” and was widely practiced by Confederate states leading up to the Civil War.

“The Baja Arizona thing comes and goes when things get nutty in Phoenix,” co-chairman Peter Hormel, a Tucson-area defense attorney and Democratic activist, says. “It’s like the pro-union, anti-crazy movement.”

Theoretically, the Start Our State drive – which accrued 47,000 signatures but was stymied by lack of funding – would have allowed Democrat-majority Pima and Santa Cruz counties to bring the issue of statehood before the Arizona Legislature. (One imagines that Yuma County might also have joined in the fun – see graph at right.) Like Johnson’s non-Indian voters in Show Low, Tucson-area Democrats were feeling marginalized within their narrow political sphere. Republicans wore the pants in the statehouse, and Democrats baked the cookies.

A Baja Arizona petition bill need only be passed by a simple majority in the Arizona House and Senate, and signed by the governor. “We thought [the Republicans] would go for it because the legislature doesn’t particularly like us down here, and by letting us leave, they could dominate the state for the rest of eternity,” Eckerstrom says.

When the Start Our State movement went viral, other Arizona communities tried to hop on board, Eckerstrom recalls. “There was some talk in Cochise County, and a [leader] way up in Coconino County talked to me. I told him, ‘Yeah, you could be our Gaza Strip!’”

Pushing the Baja Arizona partition through U.S. Congress would have been tricky, Eckerstrom concedes – certainly more problematic than the partition votes that cleaved Maine from Massachusetts (1820) or West Virginia from Virginia (1863). “Baja Arizona would probably create two new Democratic senators, though that’s not a foregone conclusion. So the success of the initiative would probably depend on another split that would create two new Republican senators. Otherwise, you know, Republicans would stop it.”

According to Eckerstrom, statehood remains a popular notion in Tucson, but he also acknowledges that Start Our State was essentially a cry for attention – much like Johnson’s secession resolution or Truxillo’s reconquista fantasies. “One of the main goals we had was to let people know we weren’t happy down here. We wanted to tell the country that we’re a little different in how we view our Mexican-American heritage, and the funding of schools. At least we made some noise.”

The tune might be different, but the song of secession is aways the same: It’s the ballad of Those Who Want Out. Sometimes it’s a little funny, sometimes not.

“I’ve lost my faith,” Johnson says, speaking on behalf of jilted partisans everywhere. “And it’s very, very sad when that happens.”