Violent Messages

A professor at the UA is threatened after people opposed to TUSD's ethnic studies name him on a video

Jan. 8 changed the playing field. That's what Roberto Rodriguez keeps telling himself when he thinks about a series of messages left on his UA office voicemail.

The assistant professor in the UA's Department of Mexican American Studies is an outspoken supporter of the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic-studies classes—which are considered illegal in the eyes of state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal.

Rodriguez also says he serves as a reminder that ethnic-studies opponents could next come after university and college classes.

Perhaps, he muses, that's why he's getting death threats and is a topic of a video produced more than two months ago by Mike Shaw, a local filmmaker and first vice-chairman of the Pima County Republican Party.

Rodriguez takes out a small digital tape recorder and presses play. A male voice spills out: "Hey, I'm part Native American; I'm part white. Hey, you think you're going to come and take my fucking shit away from me, asshole? ... Because you're fucking Mexican. You're going to find a magnum up your fucking ass, Mexican. I'm going to take you back to Mexico with fucking lead up your fucking ass, Mexican. Got it?"

Rodriguez says the University of Arizona Police Department began investigating the threats in early May, and finally concluded on Thursday, June 30.

"The cops tracked him down. I even have his number," Rodriguez says.

Sgt. Juan Alvarez, the UAPD public-information officer, told the Tucson Weekly that the Pima County Attorney's Office decided to file misdemeanor charges against the caller for harassment.

However, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall contacted the Weekly to say that while the UAPD investigation has ended, the case was still under review by her office, and no charges have been filed.

Rodriguez says the death threats came from the 928 area code, in Northern Arizona.

"There were three of them on May 9," Rodriguez says, "(and) to send the same kind of messages three times, that seems like it should be taken seriously."

Rodriguez says he isn't afraid, but concerned the investigation would lead nowhere.

"I don't think we can permit this. ... I feel there have to be some standards. You can't go around threatening people" and have it treated as 'business as usual,'" Rodriguez says.

As an example of other intimidation, he mentions a video posted on YouTube that used footage of the students taking over the April 26 school board meeting, with music including the lyrics: "Shoot 'em in the head. Shoot 'em in the head."

Rodriguez says the Tucson Police Department investigated. "They referred it to the prosecuting attorney, and they determined there was nothing prosecutable," Rodriguez says.

Post-Jan. 8, "Do they wait until someone gets shot?" Rodriguez asks. "They don't know much about this guy, or even where he lives. They didn't think that was important."

In TPD Sgt. Steve Wheeler's report, he notes his discussion with Rodriguez, and mentions that he and Tucson city prosecutor Alan Merritt reviewed the video. Wheeler states that the person who posted the video commented on YouTube that "it was just a joke and he was not trying to provoke anything."

According to the TPD report, Merritt told Wheeler that the posting of the video is not criminal.

Merritt was out of town and not able to comment, but M.J. Raciti, who is with the city attorney's office, told the Weekly that there was "insufficient evidence and proof that there was a threat."

The timing of Shaw's video, in which Rodriguez is discussed, makes the professor wonder whether the video contributes to an atmosphere that only further encourages threats.

Shaw's report focuses on a group called Tucsonans United for Sound Districts (TU4SD) and features interviews with founding members Loretta Hunnicutt and Rich Kronberg.

In the video, Hunnicutt describes a scene in which she claims she saw Rodriguez line up students to get directions before a protest—something she characterized as child abuse. When Hunnicutt went on Glenn Beck's TV show to talk about ethnic studies, she again brought up claims of child abuse, although she didn't mention Rodriguez's name.

In Shaw's video, Kronberg is more specific, describing the April TUSD board meeting in which students took over the dais. He claims he saw Rodriguez jump on a table to give students directions.

"I am the object of the video," says Rodriguez. "Yes, I was in a building, on a table. I jumped on top to direct everyone? I don't think so. The other (claim by Hunnicutt) is also a complete fabrication and a case of racial profiling. Someone may have been giving (the students) papers, but perhaps in this case, any brown person is the same as the next."

Rodriguez says he wonders if TU4SD is trying to paint him as an Arizona version of controversial activist and former University of Colorado at Boulder ethnic-studies professor Ward Churchill—who happened to be in Tucson at the April 26 student protest. Rodriguez says he's been asked if he invited Churchill to the meeting. He did not, he says.

"I also think that when it comes to (pro-ethnic-studies student group) UNIDOS, they think students don't know how to organize: 'Must be a professor directing them,'" Rodriguez says.

Shaw tells the Weekly that he put the video up on YouTube and his website, MikeShaw.TV, on May 2. He says he didn't look further into Hunnicutt or Kronberg's allegations.

Hunnicutt tells the Weekly that Shaw's video speaks for itself and that information from TU4SD is fact-checked. She adds that if Rodriguez accuses her of lying, she's going to sue him.

"I am not the story," Hunnicutt says. "The kids (in TUSD) are the story."

Kronberg did not return multiple calls from the Weekly.

Sitting with her husband, John, also a founding member of the group, Hunnicutt says TU4SD began last year with the idea to encourage more people to run for the school board, not to get involved in the ethnic-studies debate.

TU4SD was incorporated this year as a 501(c)6, a nonprofit status shared by trade, chamber, education and advocacy organizations. The Hunnicutts and Kronberg are listed as directors, and the group solicits donations on its website. Donations through debit and credit cards are processed through PAYtran, a PayPal alternative owned and operated by the Hunnicutts.

Hunnicutt says TU4SD has received less than $1,000 so far, and that $600 was spent on a debate last year between TUSD governing board candidates Miguel Ortega, Adelita Grijalva and Michael Hicks. Other expenses, according to Hunnicutt, include copies and "$75 for travel."

TU4SD is volunteer-run, and Hunnicutt says she and her husband do not profit through donations made via PAYtran on the TU4SD website, although normal processing fees are charged by credit-card companies. She expects TU4SD will sponsor a debate during the next election season, and will put together a candidate school.

When asked why it's so important for Hunnicutt to identify herself in Shaw's video and on Glenn Beck's show as a liberal Democrat, she says people who are liberal are scared to come out as critical of ethnic studies.

"It used to be OK for us to debate and have different views," she adds. "The debate has been silenced."

Has Hunnicutt always been a liberal Democrat? She says she changed her registration to Republican so she could vote for Ron Paul, but went back to being a Democrat to vote for Dennis Kucinich. According to the Pima County Recorder's Office, Hunnicutt first registered as a Democrat in 1990, re-registered in 2003 as Democrat, went independent in 2005, went Republican in 2007, and then became a Democrat in 2008.

Hunnicutt says it is unfortunate that this Weekly story regarding TU4SD is related to ethnic studies. She says that much of what is written on TU4SD's website and on Hunnicutt's blog, Tucson Daily Independent, focuses on TUSD's desegregation funding, and whether those funds help students and schools.

Her husband, John, adds that they are also concerned about TUSD's sale of schools that the district closed this year.