Revolution#108, November 11, 2007

The Untold Story of the San Diego Fires

The massive wildfires that swept through Southern California at the end of October were big news in the mainstream media. But what went largely untold were the outrages that were happening to immigrants and the cold-hearted way the system treated
all the victims of this disaster. In this issue, Revolution is publishing two correspondences we received from Southern California, along with an excerpt from a statement by an immigrant rights group, shedding light on these hidden outrages.

Over 10,000 people sought refuge in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. The mainstream media claimed the scene was “like a massive tailgate party.” On one level, it’s true that thousands of people who were allowed into Qualcomm for a short time, were not subjected to the same forms of degradation that the overwhelmingly Black and poor people in the Superdome were subjected to after Hurricane Katrina. But the correspondence in this issue reveals that many people in dire need were not allowed even blankets, food, or shelter. Farm workers were forced to stay in the fields as fires approached. African-Americans were singled out for suspicion. The authorities and the media made a big deal about some of the people getting help being so-called “freeloaders,” as if people going to the stadium for a free meal and some pampers and a blanket—which is NOT what was happening—would have been some kind of crime. As desperate people came to Qualcomm Stadium for food, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that six undocumented immigrants were accused of stealing relief supplies and arrested by Border Patrol agents. Police announced that “They were stealing from the people in need.” The newspaper article claimed that one of the people arrested confessed to being paid to take things of value from the stadium. The next day, an article in the Union-Tribune revealed that the people apprehended and deported were two couples, one with three children. A Union-Tribune reporter who spoke with some of the deportees over the phone from Tijuana reported that the people said they did not confess to stealing anything. They said that they were taking items donated to them as they prepared to return home, and this was confirmed by eyewitnesses. This highly publicized demonization and deportation of immigrants seeking help was, in effect, a death sentence for immigrants in the form of a message to not seek life-saving help next time there is a natural disaster. Four charred bodies are suspected to be the remains of immigrants caught in the flames.

No one was allowed to stay at Qualcomm without a “proper” ID, barring undocumented immigrants, the homeless, or people who lost all their papers in the fires. 

And then, on Friday, October 26, those who were able to produce all the required papers were kicked out of Qualcomm so that the San Diego Chargers could play the Houston Texans in the stadium. People were sent back to neighborhoods blanketed with toxic smoke and without running water. There, government “assistance centers” offered help with insurance and mental health counseling.

Even while the media reported that tons of supplies were donated to people in need, the system could only bring itself to mete out limited survival rations to some people—and even then with the message “don’t get used to it” stamped all over the operation. Police even threatened to taser a volunteer, a Filipino-American, for making two trips to supply victims with supplies. And in case anyone was confused about this system’s priorities, a football game was considered more important than the thousands of people staying in Qualcomm. For the middle class: a few days of “charity,” then beat it.

For people on the bottom of society, an even colder message: you have no right to the basic necessities of life, no matter what, and if you try to get a meal or a blanket, you’ll be branded “looters” and deported.

The crops that immigrant farm workers were picking as the fires approached the fields were not being grown so that people could eat. They were commodities for capitalists to appropriate for sale. The farm workers in those fields were chained to their jobs, forced to risk their lives to pick those crops by that same capitalist system and its enforcers—knowing that if they fled, instead of shelter and food, there would be only arrest and deportation.

The San Diego fires were a terrible disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people of all strata were, and still are, in dire need. This is a society that can produce huge amounts of the things people need. But whatever miserly assistance was doled out to the victims of this disaster was done in a way that reinforced the operation of, and the values and morality of, a system built on exploitation.

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