Seven years ago last month, I spent twenty-six hours in Sheriff Joe Arpaio‘s jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I engaged in civil disobedience to bring attention to Arpaio’s unabated abuse of power. I was arrested, along with a hundred other people, for allegedly blocking traffic in front of Joe Arpaio’s office in the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Phoenix.
In my brief stay in Arpaio’s jail, he didn’t require me to don one of his signature pink prison uniforms, but he stripped me of my dignity, nevertheless. There I witnessed everything I needed to know about Joe Arpaio through the fear and intimidation exacted by his deputies. I saw them beat a woman who looked at them the wrong way. I saw them order prisoners to mop up her blood and then use the same mop to swab the only floor a group of prisoners had on which to sleep. I saw them refuse medication to a person with a life-threatening medical condition and a blanket to a woman who had spent three days shivering in a cold cell. Later, I talked with another protester who they locked in a cell by herself with no ability to use the toilet because she dared ask for a wheelchair after growing faint standing for hours in the searing Arizona heat. Interestingly, she was the only black woman arrested with us – hard to believe it was a coincidence.
Joe Arpaio was convicted last month in a federal court for criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a court order to stop detaining undocumented immigrants. Although this is only a misdemeanor, it is something. At least someone is taking a stand to say that his actions are not tolerable in a civil society.
Tuesday night, in Phoenix, President Trump told an audience of his fans that Arpaio was just “doing his job,” and insinuated that he doesn’t deserve to be punished for it. He assured the audience that it is his “prediction” that “Sheriff Joe is going to be just fine.” In other words, he’s going to take care of his friend.
I am outraged at President Trump for even flaunting the idea of pardoning Joe Arpaio. A pardon by this President is patronage at its most egregious.
Trump and Arpaio are cut from the same white, nationalistic, racist, misogynistic, ableist, homo/transphophic cloth. In just one example, Joe Arpaio was a self-appointed investigator determined to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He conspired with Trump to perpetuate this racist lie, despite all evidence to the contrary.
What Trump was really saying in Phoenix on Tuesday night was that the law doesn’t matter as long as you’re on the side of making America great, er, white — I can’t say “again” here because America has never been the great country they seem to remember and it, certainly, was never the white country they fantasize about. Despite its stated aspirations, the United States of America was founded on colonization, extermination, enslavement, and domination. But even as millions of its people were enslaved, massacred, or forced from their lands into reservations, it has always been composed of a diverse population of people.
And from the very onset of colonization, people have resisted. Millions have worked to wrest power out of the clenched fists of white, heterosexual, cisgender men and it is their success that has brought us to where we are in 2017. Trump and Arpaio dream of returning to a time when men who looked like them controlled everything.
Joe Arpaio set and enforced policies in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office that promoted racial profiling and ignored court orders to stop illegal detentions, traffic stops, and raids. He was held liable in a civil contempt-of-court trial and, subsequently, convicted of criminal contempt in a prosecution by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. Arpaio repeatedly violated court orders and thumbed his nose at anyone who dared tell him he needed to rein in his illegal treatment of immigrant communities.
On July 29, 2010, the day that AZ SB 1070, often referred to as the “Papers, please” law, was set to be enacted, I joined with thousands of others who were, and continue to be, on the ground fighting every day for the rights guaranteed by our constitution and, in many cases, for their very lives. I chose to place myself in a position of potential arrest in Phoenix because I couldn’t sit back any longer and see families torn apart by Arpaio’s quest to rid Maricopa County of people with brown skin.
What I did, however, pales in significance to activists from NDLON (National Day Laborers Organization), Puente, and Mijente, to name just a few of the organizations dedicated to ensuring that the US protects the human and civil rights of all people within its borders.
Joe Arpaio cares nothing about the people in his former jurisdiction — only about his own nationalist agenda. And now, he has a collaborator in the White House who showers him with praise for trouncing on the rights of immigrants and citizens because they fit his definition of “the other.”
I have to admit that I rejoiced, this last November, when Joe Arpaio lost his bid to be re-elected to a sixth term as Maricopa County’s sheriff. In fact, it was one of only a few bright spots in an otherwise catastrophic election. I rejoiced again last month when a US District judge found him guilty of contempt – a small piece of justice served.
I know Arpaio probably won’t serve any jail time, but I also imagine that taking on the moniker of criminal is a lot harder for him than that of racist. He is used to being called a racist, but before now, and probably, even still today, Joe Arpaio believes he is above the law.
If the President follows through on his threat to pardon Apario, I can’t say I will be surprised. We elected a kindred spirit in Donald Trump – Joe Apraio on steroids. I will say, however, that my work, and I hope yours, has never been more clear. We have cried “havoc and let slip the dogs of war.” It is up to us to contain them once again if we ever hope to grow into the country we dream about, one that, above all else, protects the human and civil rights of all its people.
It is up to us to rip open the cloth that is white supremacy and expose the evil behind it.
It is up to us to make the hate-filled language of today unacceptable in public dialogue.
It is up to us to end the violence directed at people who have been marginalized.
It is time to center the lives of people of color and other marginalized communities.
It is up to us to demand that people, all people, be treated with dignity and respect.
In 2014, Skinner House published a book, Resistance: A Memoir of Civil Disobedience in Maricopa County, about my experiences in Joe Arpaio’s jail. In writing it, I wanted to draw attention to Joe Arpaio’s abuses, to the everyday experiences of people imprisoned by Joe Arpaio, and to explore my process, as a white, middle-class lesbian, for deciding to engage in civil disobedience.
Even after I made my decision to go, my doubts didn’t go away, as you can see from this passage, “Would I find the courage to stand up for my beliefs or would I keep pretending I was working for justice? I knew the answer. I could feel it rise up in my body like the blinding sun as it peeks out from behind dark clouds after a storm. I had to do this if I was going to stay credible, even to myself. I had talked too long. It was time to do something real.”
Whether or not you believe that civil disobedience is your way, or even the right way, to do the work that must be done, you must find the thing you can contribute, the thing that is real for you, and do it. We have no time to waste unless we want to see more people like Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio feel emboldened to destroy the gains we’ve made. We have come too far and have too far to go to lose ground now. Will you join me?