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Movement & Repression: A History of the Criminalization of the Mobility of Colonized Peoples in California

Freedom and movement are synonymous

When the Spanish colonized what is called California today, teams of priests and soldiers established the Missions. Upon "discovering" this territory, they took possession of the land and the people who lived there on behalf of the Spanish Crown, in accordance with the laws proclaimed by the Pope.

According to the Spanish, upon accepting baptism, the Indigenous people -who didn't understand Spanish - accepted a "contract" to forever more stay within the boundaries of the respective Mission and never travel without the permission of the padres.

The Spanish gentleman was known as a caballero, literally a man with the privilege to ride a horse. In Medieval Europe, the serfs were not generally allowed to ride horses, and had to stay confined the lands of their lords. These customs maintained the inequality between the nobles and the commoners in Europe. The European colonists typically reproduced the same policies in their new territories, placing the indigenous populations at the bottom of the power structure. The extreme subjugation of non-European peoples allowed second-born nobles and common Europeans to own land, slaves and other property that would have been unavailable to them in Europe.

The Spanish imposed this system on the Indigenous and African populations in their colonies. The California Native Americans were only able to use means of transportation in order to perform work for their masters. In fact, an Indigenous man riding a horse was considered "on the war path." It was illegal for Indigenous people to ride horses in California until México gained Independence from Spain and the Missions lost the monopoly on land holdings that they had enjoyed under the Crown.

The U.S. Wars of Aggression Against Mexico Resulted In An Enormous Theft of Land

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending hostilities between the two countries, recognized the acquisition of the claimed Mexican territory under the condition that the Mexicans retained their rights and property. Article IX establishes that Mexicans "shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property."

As California became integrated into the expanding empire, a series of policies criminalized another people within the U.S. The enslavement of African Americans established that Black people were property of White masters. The separation of African families was considered a necessary and routine practice in the slave industry. Commodities, after all, do not enjoy the rights of families. Black slaves were only able to use means of transportation in order to perform work for their masters.

Often with the aid of a clandestine network of Abolitionists, Black slaves frequently freed themselves from servitude by fleeing to México, Canada, Indigenous Nations and Northern states in the U.S. The owners of this "lost property," however, pursued their prey. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, White people could detain any Black person under the suspicion of being a fugitive slave. The Black person was therefore required to present documentation to prove that he was indeed "free." A fugitive slave in California discovered by Whites would be brought back to the custody of the owner. If the owner did not reside in California, the fugitives would be deported to another state. Runaway slaves were usually tortured as a consequence for escaping. Essentially, there was no abuse that an owner could not inflict on his property.

I n 2012, policies which restrict the mobility and freedom of workers and colonized people persist. Simultaneously, U.S. soldiers and banks easily travel around the globe.

Within México and Central America, the World Bank/IMF and the U.S. armed forces impose policies of underdevelopment. Under this neoliberal system, transnational corporations displace small farmers and Indigenous peoples in order to extract their resources. While free trade treaties open up the borders for capital, the displaced workers must increasingly face militarization and criminalization abroad.

Starting with Pete Wilson, all the governors of California have denied drivers' licenses to the some 2 million undocumented drivers in the state. Authorities use this lack of a license as a pretext to impound their vehicles. This policy should be recognized as a generalized pattern of oppressing workers and colonized peoples.

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