Sunday, July 12, 2020

Watching the River Flow

Note: A shorter version of this article appears in the excellent online publication Journal of the Plague Year, which deserves your readership and support. This "director's cut" includes passages on Tucson's response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the restoration of our ancient river habitat.

For years, the beleaguered liberals of Arizona joked that we couldn’t even be best at being worst: the state was consistently ranked 49th out of the 50 states in education and not much better in most of the other indices of a civilized middle-class existence. “Hey, we’re better than Alabama!” we’d comfort ourselves.  

This week, our state finally broke out: On July 7, Arizona had the most COVID-19 infections per capita of any state -- i

n fact, the most in the world if Arizona was stacked up against countries instead of states. We were, finally, number one. 

We have stayed in the to

p slot for the past three days, with 117,000 cases by Friday and more than 2,000 deaths. The state’s hospitals are overwhelmed. Front-line medical workers were posting accounts on social media that were indistinguishable from the harrowing stories from New York in March.

I live in Tucson, where out-of-control suburban sprawl has pushed the population close to the one million mark. Yet in many ways, Tucson is still a small town. A few years back I went to get my blood drawn and was surprised to find my fellow local cartoonist Max Cannon wielding the needle. His darkly funny strip Red Meat ("the most tasteless and twisted comic in the world") had been syndicated to alternative weeklies and once upon a time, his animated show "Shadow Rock" was on Comedy Central. But as the creative class took a nosedive, he was probably damn glad to have a day job.

Two weeks ago Max sent out a harrowing account on Facebook: “We risk ourselves and our family's health each day by doing this work. We watch our coworkers get infected. And we experience much worse,” he wrote.

“The hospital has rationed our personal protective equipment. One single (previous-to-this-pandemic) disposable N-95 mask is supposed to last us for months now. Mine doesn't even fit my face because they only have two sizes available. A number of physicians are buying their own PPE if it is available in a hospital grade quality and is even available for purchase, which I can attest from experience is not easily obtainable despite the products you see on Amazon or elsewhere. Supplies of sterilizing cleaning products are running disturbingly low.”

Max noted, presciently, that “the situation is about to go from very, very bad to unimaginably worse.”

And now that day has come. As of Monday, there were only 11 intensive care beds available in the entire Tucson metropolitan area, home to over a million people. For weeks we’ve had Yuma sending patients to Tucson, Tucson sending them to Phoenix, anywhere a spare bed can be scrounged up. Now patients are being shipped out of state, to Albuquerque, San Diego or Las Vegas.


Charles Bowden, the state’s uncrowned Nonfiction Prose Laureate, once wrote of Arizona: “Here is a land of aching beauty and the people always fail the land.” In other words, the disaster in Arizona isn’t a statistical fluke. Yet Arizona could be—just maybe—the state that turns the Senate blue. Because we’re not crazy. Not all of us. Really. It just seems that way.

 Like most Western states, much of Arizona is federal land—parks, wildlife refuges. That’s indirectly linked to the region’s tradition of small government, conservative politics: “We don’t want no stinkin’ federal gummint tellin’ us what to do.” But that’s the old Arizona.

This week, in an interview with Rachel Maddow, Pima County health director Teresa Cullen admonished the host that Arizona can’t be reduced to a stereotype. Pima County, is in many ways, a snapshot of the state, she explained, with more than one million people living in rural, semi-rural, and urban areas, including two American Indian reservations. “We’re a very eclectic group in terms of the country,” Cullen said gently, but pointedly.

Most of the state’s population lives in the two major cities: Tucson and Phoenix. In a rivalry akin to the way San Franciscans used to look down on Los Angeles, Tucson is a university town, and likes to think of itself as the hipper, cooler younger sibling to Phoenix. But Phoenix contains 60 percent of the state’s population. The important Phoenicians are the good old boys, traditionally real estate developers, who run the place. And Phoenix votes Republican. That’s the conventional wisdom and it’s almost always true.

This is how the former CEO of a chain of premium ice cream stores ended up handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Doug Ducey, Arizona’s GOP governor since 2015, has the look of a perpetually overwhelmed middle manager and a business record disturbingly reminiscent of Donald Trump’s. As CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, his aggressive expansion ended with franchisees racking up nearly a 30% default rate on Small Business Administration loans, the fourth worst in the nation.

Ducey got out before the company before the bill came due. As treasurer, he helped the right-wing,libertarian Koch brothers defeat an education funding initiative in 2012. Two years later, they poured $1.4 million into his gubernatorial campaign. Now there are rumors he’d like to be a senator, but his mishandling of the coronavirus may end his political career.

Perhaps it was Ducey’s business career that primed him for the nation’s worst Covid disaster. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Ducey issued a patchwork of executive orders to deal with the pandemic in mid-March. Schools were shut down for a few weeks, and later, the shutdown was extended for the rest of the term. The governor ordered bars, theaters, and gyms closed on March 19, after many mayors had already done so. At that point, there were 45 cases of Covid-19 in the state of Arizona.

Four days later, Ducey issued what amounted to loopholes for “essential services” that would stay open if the state shut down. The list included payday lenders, hair salons, laundromats and golf courses -- but only in counties with active cases, a list that changed from day to day. Eventually, Ducey was forced to issue a shutdown order, but it didn’t last long. 

As early as April 17, alarmed at the economic fallout, the president began tweeting demands to “liberate” the states from shutdown. Ducey, along with other red-state governors, fell in line, announcing a partial reopening to begin May 4. On May 12, he lifted his shutdown order, with little leeway or guidance for the more stricken areas. Ducey also prevented mayors from issuing any facemask orders.

As the reopening began, the state was poised at just under 12,000 cumulative cases. Freedom-loving Arizonans immediately began acting like the virus was gone for good, flocking to bars, malls and casinos, while Romero and other mayors were helpless to intervene.

When the lockdown was unconditionally lifted, in the middle of May, we were just hitting a streak of triple-digit temperatures that sent stir-crazy crowds to the air-conditioned comfort of Applebee’s and Fuddruckers, unmasked and oblivious. Still: worse than Florida? That’s some kind of achievement. Maybe it’s the higher proportion of Native Americans, and the institutional racism that has condemned the Navajo Nation to malign neglect, that has given us the edge, along with the ratfuck crazy black helicopter paranoia endemic to the American West that shifts anti-vaxxers into anti-maskers without grinding the gears.

The inevitable spike began after Memorial Day. By July 6, the state had topped 100,000 total cases, poised on the brink of the kind of catastrophe seen in Italy and New York. Ducey still has not reinstated shutdown orders, and while bars and gyms are closed, restaurant dining rooms remain open. Our ICUs are almost at full capacity and cases continue to rise. As our community is flooded beyond existing levees, recrimination will be as inevitable as the bodies stacked in hallways.


Arizona is mirroring the nation’s breakdown. The chief executive is malevolently incompetent and it is the female mayors of Phoenix and Tucson, both Democrats, who are fighting to save lives. But their authority is limited, and without support from Ducey, their efforts haven’t been sufficient to stop the spread. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told the news media on Friday that the county medical examiner’s office was at 96 percent capacity and that officials were working to “secure a contract for refrigerator trucks.” Not for the first time, she pressed Gov. Ducey to institute a statewide mask requirement.

Since the pandemic took hold, the political math in Arizona has changed. The Senate race has narrowed between Republican Martha McSally, who is close to Donald Trump, and Democratic candidate Mark Kelly, a former astronaut married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose shooting is still fresh in the minds of people who live in the state. Kelly’s candidacy has attracted national support, and without opportunities for rallies and face-to-face interactions, he can outspend his rival. In Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, Kelly leads McSally in the polls by 18 percent.

Bill Clinton won Arizona by a narrow margin the second time he ran for president, marking what Democrats hoped would be a change in the state’s politics. But when times get tough, Arizona, a boom and bust state, reverts to its traditional ways.

When unemployment claims spiked off the charts at the end of March, Regina Romero had been Tucson’s mayor for only four months. A former city council member, she’s the first female mayor, and the first Hispanic mayor in nearly 150 years. Never an economic powerhouse, Tucson’s main employers involve education, military spending, prisons, local governments, health care and big-box retailers (not coincidentally, most of these are vectors for the efficient spread of airborne virus particles). The median income here is around $50,000, well below the national average -- or the state average, for that matter. And the economy, recovering from the housing crisis, had just gotten going again before it was shut down.

Once, not that long ago, Tucson’s downtown was so deserted that a lone horseman rode undisturbed past the statue of Pancho Villa on his rearing stallion, the past and the present crossing paths as if in that moment between sleep and wakefulness when dream and reality are indistinguishable. Then Tucson was discovered. For the past few years, construction cranes have adorned the skyline, building new high-rise hotels and apartments, and road crews have been busy widening freeway interchanges and arterials.

            What fueled the downtown building boom was a four-mile light rail line snaking from the University of Arizona to the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. Height limits were relaxed in an effort to encourage density along the route, and since its launch in 2014, the streetcar line has attracted over $1 billion in investment, with new bars and restaurants popping up regularly. A  cohort of office workers and trust-fund students replaced the bohemian atmosphere that flourished when rents were low. But even as it rebuilt, Tucson seemed to be looking over its shoulder, anticipating the next crash.

Now, of course, many of the restaurants are shuttered (or limited to takeout), and Ducey just closed bars again (though not restaurants) statewide. The highrise apartments were meant to house college students, who may well be studying online in their hometowns this term. The new hotels targeted conventioneers and tourists, but those bookings have all been cancelled. And the new lanes were budgeted in anticipation of ever-increasing demand for automobile traffic, an assumption that started to look questionable even in the before times. It looks now like we were rebuilding a city that belonged to a different time, and may need to go back to the drawing board.


The poverty rate before the crash was around a quarter of the city, about double the nationwide statistic, and a good ten points above Arizona’s rate. The numbers now are anyone’s guess, but much of Tucson, like most of America, was just a paycheck or two away from being broke. The tension of sheltering with laid-off family members was bad enough before George Floyd was publicly executed on May 25. Just as in cities nationwide, a spontaneous burst of frustration included acts of vandalism and property destruction early on, but protests have continued on a mostly peaceful basis, with relatively few arrests.

The city responded with a commitment to policing reform, though an ordinance limiting the filming of police within the boundaries of a crime scene  (since repealed) drew nationwide criticism. Mayor Romero stated on May 30 that “This week has tapped into a deep and generational pain rooted in a long history of iniquity and oppression." The police chief, Chris Magnus, condemned the “indefensible use of force” by Minneapolis police officers. But what Tucson didn’t know was that on the day George Floyd died, Carlos Ingram-Lopez had already been dead for a month.

Video footage of his April 21 arrest shows TPD officers kneeling on the back of the handcuffed suspect, who complained with the words “I can’t breathe.” The three officers involved were initially cleared in the death, with cocaine being blamed for the suspect’s cardiac arrest. But later investigation showed they had violated department standards, and all of them resigned before they could be fired. Chief Magnus acknowledged that his department had not notified the community of the suspect’s death, and when the video surfaced, he offered to resign.

But neither the mayor or city manager, or even the suspect’s family, accepted his resignation. Magnus, one of the nation’s first open gay police chiefs, is generally well regarded in the community. He’s known for his commitment to policing reform and for supporting Black Lives Matter from its inception. When he said he had not seen the video until recently, many were willing to take him at his word -- though on July 8, TPD released the results of its internal probe of another death of yet another suspect, restrained and gasping the familiar complaint “I can’t breathe.” Demands for further transparency are sure to follow.

Mayor Romero, who had hung a BLM banner from City Hall, has largely escaped repercussions for the incident, as it seems she was kept in the dark. But last week, she managed to antagonize police supporters by reversing the city manager’s decision to allow a symbolic “thin blue line” to be painted in front of police headquarters. Based on a couple of genuinely offensive Facebook posts, she labelled the originator of the request as a “white supremacist,” and refused to allow the painting, to the outrage of other supporters.

  Police argued that a huge Black Lives Matter slogan had been painted just a few blocks away on the same city street. The city attorney ruled that neither of them, or any political slogan, should be allowed to be painted on city streets. But that has hardly defused the ire of the pro-police advocates, and now calls for Romero’s resignation or recall have arisen. However minor a controversy compared to the enormity of our other crises, it’s managed to put a tense community further on edge.


Down by the Santa Cruz River, you can escape that tension for a while, watching the wildlife return to the ancient channel. The Santa Cruz is flowing through the heart of Tucson once again, even if it’s not quite the same river that first attracted human settlement here ten thousand years ago. The Santa Cruz vanished as a year-round river around mid-century, after farming and mining upstream had sucked it dry. Since then, Tucson grew from around 75,000 thirsty residents to over a million, putting additional strain on the ancient aquifer.

But the ghost of our river has returned. Starting in 1993, water has been pumped in from the Colorado River, 364 miles away, gradually replenishing the groundwater. Of course, the coal-fired plant needed to power those pumps helped diminish the snowmelt necessary to keep the Colorado flowing, but maybe we can divert some extra from the flooded fields of the Midwest to keep that going.

Starting about a year ago, the security of that water supply allowed Tucson to begin recharging 3 million gallons a day of treated effluent into the Santa Cruz. It wasn’t much of a river -- galumphing in south of downtown, and trickling out again a few miles north -- but riparian habitat started to return, literally within days. Dozens of varieties of dragonflies, three native toad species, and a birdwatcher’s dream of egrets, herons, and kingfishers -- even an errant pelican -- swiftly arrived.

After eight months, though, the river became a victim of its own success. Rising groundwater levels threatened to seep into retired landfills nearby, possibly leaching dangerous toxins into our water supply. So the river was shut down again, and bulldozers cleared out the nascent vegetation in order to help the water flow more efficiently, without pooling up and overfilling the aquifer. Wildlife scattered away again as the channel was resculpted to better cohabit with the city.

Finally, last week, the earthmoving equipment moved out and the ghost river returned. Once again, the flora and fauna have rebounded, hopefully for the long term. And that’s exactly how Tucson is flowing haphazardly into the next decade -
robbing Peter to pay Paul, depleting our resources, jury-rigging plans that only create new problems. The overlapping national crises of the Covid, the crash and the cops may yet be resolved, but there’s no going back to the way it used to be. But if the fallout from this crisis sweeps some new leadership into office, we have the chance to begin a restoration, just like the one beginning on the banks of the Santa Cruz.

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