With Pardon of Arpaio, Trump Gives a Green Light to Racist Cops and Vigilantes

This presidential action comes at a perilous time in U.S. history.

Barbara Ransby August 28, 2017

An “I Voted Against Arpaio” campaign button. (All photos by George Goehl)

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. 

Given this grim reality, anti-fascist organizing and united front coalitions have never been more important.

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 Stones 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.

Bar­bara Rans­by is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois-Chica­go and the author of Ella Bak­er and the Black Free­dom Move­ment: A Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­t­ic Vision. She is a long­time activist and a founder of the group Ella’s Daughters.
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