California: The State of Resistance

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
California governor-elect Gavin Newsom on election night, Los Angeles, November 2018


A kindling sense of apocalypse is business as usual for Californians, who live almost nonchalantly with impending doom. Wildfires eat up the landscape, roar into the cities, drop tons of choking ash in the mountain-locked valleys. Mudslides come in winter and spring. Underfoot is the constant threat of “the big one,” the earthquake that will end everything in a few minutes. Dwindling rivers, drained lakes, and recurring droughts keep the southern and most populous part of California in a state of anxious thirst. The most recent drought lasted from 2011 to 2017, and 2011–2015 was the driest period since record-keeping began in 1895.

Yet quotidian life hums on. “There’s no explanation for it, but we feel immune,” a wealthy Angeleno told me. California’s gross economic output is almost $3 trillion, which, were it a sovereign nation, would make it the fifth-largest economy in the world. Today the Republic of California, as a couple of dozen settlers christened it in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, again feels like a breakaway state, with its own mores, laws, phobias, and monumental contradictions.

The California legislature’s rebellion against President Trump’s polices may be the most serious one that an individual state has mounted against the federal government since South Carolina threatened to secede over cotton tariffs in the 1830s. (California’s present-day secessionist movement, called Calexit, has little popular support. Californians don’t see themselves as separate from America but as its epitome, “the keeper of its future,” in the words of its highest elected officials.) The terms of the rebellion were set on November 9, 2016, the day after Trump won the presidency, when the heads of the state senate and assembly issued a joint statement declaring that California “would lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.”

“Resistance” has become an overused word, but state lawmakers have made good on their vow. The California Values Act, or sanctuary law as it is popularly known, restricts cooperation between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has become, in California and elsewhere, a roving deportation force with something resembling paramilitary powers.1 The Justice Department has sued California over the law, and last March then attorney general Jeff Sessions traveled to Sacramento to encourage a gathering of California’s Peace Officers’ Association to “stop actively obstructing federal law enforcement” and “protecting law breakers” at the behest of “the most radical extremists.” Sessions got a polite but far from enthusiastic reception. Most local police have enforced the sanctuary law. Some, like Sheriff Donny Youngblood of Kern County, at the southern end of the Central Valley, where thousands of undocumented farmworkers reside, have openly defied it and given ICE free rein. Youngblood has deemed Bakersfield, the county seat whose population is 50.5 percent Hispanic,…

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