The 45th president of the United States has exhibited some pretty outrageous behavior in his eight months in office, but his recent pardon of racist former Sheriff, Joe Arpaio of Ariz., might be the most ominous act yet.
A signature feature of dictators and tyrants is that they allow their henchmen to act with impunity, no matter how brutal, and to jail and punish their critics. The pardon of Arpaio sends a dangerous signal to racist cops and ruthless vigilantes alike. The message is: If you are doggedly loyal to Trump and his base, you can get away with anything. The President himself boasted last month that he has “complete power” to pardon. And with his praiseful pardon of Arpaio, a man Rolling Stone’s Joe Hagan referred to as “the most corrupt and abusive sheriff in America,” Trump has demonstrated that he is willing to exercise that power.
To understand the full impact of this presidential action, we need to remember who Joe Arpaio is. He is not a crotchety old sheriff from a bygone era. Arpaio was an equal-opportunity oppressor, challenging the legitimacy of the nation’s first Black president as part of the racist “birther” movement while rounding up and inhumanely persecuting documented and undocumented Latinx Ariz. residents.
The Maricopa sheriff’s department, under Arpaio’s rule from 1993 to 2016, was notorious for its harassment and racial profiling of Latinx residents. Their tyrannical practices were so egregious that the Department of Homeland Security prohibited Arpaio from enforcing federal immigration policies. A scathing Department of Justice report indicates that Latinx prisoners under Arpaio’s control were routinely referred to by a litany of racist slurs, including: “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches” and “stupid Mexicans.”
Arpaio’s scandalous open-air prison unit, dubbed “tent city,” housed hundreds of inmates, overwhelmingly Latinx, in unbearable desert heat and unsafe conditions. Arpaio jokingly called the facility his own “concentration camp.” He also re-instated the disgraceful and famously racist “chain gang,” where prisoners were traipsed around in public shackled together and — in a veiled homophobic insinuation — forced to wear pink underwear under their uniforms.
Essentially, Arpaio’s career was an unchecked reign of terror in Ariz. This is the man who Trump embraced, referring to his service as “admirable.”
Arpaio’s practices and persona bear a painful resemblance to the anti-Black racism of southern sheriffs in the 1960s — and the continued racist practices of many urban police forces today. Some observers have likened Arpaio to a modern-day Bull Connor, the notorious and blustering public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala. who brazenly defied federal law, unleashed dogs and turned powerful water hoses on Civil Rights protesters in the 1960s. The chain gang and racial epithets were a mainstays of southern law enforcement before and during the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, the Movement for Black Lives has foregrounded the fact that racist police violence and mistreatment are systemic and persistent, even after police forces have been desegregated. Think of the police shootings of Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Mya Hall, Tamir Rice, Ayana Jones, Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd and so many others in recent years.
The law-and-order president condones lawlessness when it suits him, another trait common to authoritarian regimes: rules for everybody but not for “us.” In a speech on Long Island in July, Trump condoned the rough treatment of suspects during an arrest. He jokingly told his law enforcement audience, “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
This must have sent a shiver down the spines of the families of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, two young Black people who died in police custody under highly suspicious circumstances, after being violently arrested.
Trump’s pardon of Arpaio, once referred to by detainees as “Hitler,” comes at a perilous time in this nation’s history. The scenes of heavily armed white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville and rampaging across the campus of the University of Virginia with torches are fresh in our minds. It was only two weeks ago that Heather Heyer was murdered at the hands of a Neo-Nazi vigilante calling himself a patriot, the same term Trump used in applauding his buddy, “Sheriff Joe.”
Given this grim reality, anti-fascist organizing and united front coalitions have never been more important. The work of The Majority, a broad-based alliance of organizations called together by the Movement for Black Lives is one significant development. And the “Black and Brown” unity platform of the Expanded Sanctuary Movement, spearheaded by Mijente and Black Youth Project 100 to oppose the criminalization of Black and Brown communities, is yet another example of organizers taking seriously the slogan, “same enemy, same fight.” The local Chicago-based coalition, Resist. Reimagine. Rebuild, is doing this important united front work on the local level. There is much work for progressive, left and anti-racist activists to do from the electoral arena to protests in the streets. The stakes have rarely been higher.
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Barbara Ransby is a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she directs the Social Justice Initiative and the Portal Project. A feminist and longtime activist, she is author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, two other books, and many essays and articles. Her current book project examines the crises of racial capitalism and the response of 21st justice movements.