In this week’s New Yorker there is a great profile of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. (Sorry, the full text isn’t online.) Although it contained a lot of stuff I already knew about Arpaio — that he’s virulently racist, sexist, anti-immigrant; that he is dedicated to creating the most inhumane conditions possible in his jails; that he is a major attention whore — it made a few unsettling points really hit home.
Arpaio is popular because he’s hateful. He racially profiles Latinos, his ratings go up. He divides families and goes out of his way to deport peaceful people who are just here to make a living, his ratings go up. He treats jail inmates — some of whom have not even been convicted of a crime — as subhuman, his ratings go up. He sort of functions as a conduit for the worst impulses in our society.
The sheriff also raises a question I think about often: When do we call out hatemongers who are looking for attention, and when do we decide the best course of action is to ignore them? In Arpaio’s case, I think it’s important to call it out — even though what he desires most in the world is more attention. And this is the reason:
Maricopa County is not a modest, out-of-the-way place. It includes Phoenix, covers more than nine thousand square miles, and has a population of nearly four million. Joe Arpaio has been sheriff there since 1993. He has four thousand employees, three thousand volunteer posse members, and an over-worked media-relations unit of five.
In other words, whether we like it or not, he’s powerful. When it comes to the immigration issue, one federal policy that empowers him is the 287(g) provision, which essentially allows local police and sheriffs to act as national-security officials. It is this provision that has enabled Arpaio to turn his law-enforcement unit into a racial-profiling and immigrant-hunting unit. Even when this provision is wielded by non-crackpot sheriffs, Nezua points out,
It’s simply not a good idea to give police, who are (in ideal) in existence to help the community, the powers to enforce the borders of the nation–a job that is normally in the province of the military
Many organizations have called for the repeal of 287(g). However, Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano recently announced she is actually expanding this program, despite some evidence that in 287(g) districts like Arpaio’s, actual crime-fighting is suffering because of the focus on immigrant-hunting. Let’s collectively smack our palms against our foreheads, shall we?
What the New Yorker profile underscored for me is that Arpaio is more than your average Fred Phelps or Pat Buchanan-style hatemonger. He is one of the most popular politicians in Arizona. And, disgustingly, he has built that popularity by doing everything he can to push people who are on the margins of society even further out. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be closer to the center should be doing everything we can to disempower him.