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This opinion piece was submitted to the AZ Daily Star a couple days ago! While Arpaio isn’t super relevant in our 12 hour news cycle, he was an extremely important figure in shaping our virulent identity based politics, along with the other names mentioned here. I can not emphasize enough how damaging yet influential his attitudes were on our justice system.
A prevalent theme among writers recently has been analyzing America’s devolution to where we’re at, how this once proud symbol of democratic opportunity became that of inequality, greed, and divisiveness that ignores human suffering for individual gain. Along with Limbaugh, Palin, and Trump, Joe Arpaio stands among a handful of individuals that accelerated us towards a death of rationality while giving rise to extreme identity politics that ignore, even call for, oppression of others.
One of the original image obsessed ‘gun slinging’ conservatives, Arpaio championed profiling laws such as the infamous SB1070, illegally sending Latiné individuals to jail on suspicion of being undocumented. Victims detained for drug use, shoplifting, or suspected illegality were sent en masse to Tent City. This Hellish outdoor prison was promoted as saving money, which it did through pure cruelty; stuffing inmates into tents like sardines, providing two rotting meals a day that cost 30 cents per head, and leaving prisoners to their own devices in the heat or freezing rain with trash bags as coats. For shock value Arpaio added women and youth chain gangs, which placed minor inmates in prominent spots where families could see them and ‘teach their kids a lesson.’ His law and order agitprop helped push us into a political environment where compromise and empathy are viewed as weakness; no matter the “crime,” labelled offenders must be subject to brutal punishment.
Arizona used to be the land of McCain; even tempered conservatives who maintained a facade of respect behind their disenfranchising policies. Now any pretense of care for fellow humans has been dropped with people like Arpaio leading the charge. He declared his nightmarish facility a concentration camp, boasting that he was the “toughest Sheriff in America.” When asked why, he replied that he keeps getting reelected, so what difference do the conditions make? Voters will look the other way on literal torture because racist ideas of other groups from figures like Arpaio make them feel superior, even though Tent City cost taxpayers over $4 million a year at its height. During Joe’s tenure Maricopa County racked up over 2,200 federal lawsuits (the average county receives maybe a dozen annually), but the cost was justifiable to supporters who viewed nonwhites as alien.
Arpaio managed to stay in office for nearly three decades, lavishing in the media frenzy his cruel antics created while surviving scandals such as a sting operation by his civilian posse in which they received sex from prostitutes and arrested them before they had to pay for services. Loyal followers viewed his actions as just, a frightening testament when considering the length of his tenure and the fact that Trump pardoned him as a “great patriot.” People like Arpaio don’t care for anyone besides themselves, yet this attitude is upheld as the American dream. As they spew radicalizing hatred others stand idly by because challenging the status quo may entail losing money or status; neither of which are acceptable in the zero sum game of American life.
The establishment who benefits from America’s oppression pushes against change just as much as Arpaio, the difference is they are nicer about it and misdirect us with a smile. We must recognize the attitudes holding us back are a product of an upper class that wants to maintain total control over the labor and autonomy of Americans, that hatred is a vehicle of fear that prevents us from adapting with the rest of the world as power is consolidated in every way possible. When we keep hating each other for superficial differences, soulless folks like Arpaio can keep taking power and inflicting mass suffering while being viewed as a “great patriot” by half of the country. The problems facing us can only be solved by thinking collectively and empathetically, and the mythos of cruel personas only reinforces the idea that we are alone in America and compromise can never exist.