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My Day With Sheriff Joe Arpaio

In March of 2011, I spent three hours with Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, with a small group of students from the University of Southern California. It was during the annual Spring Break trip, focused on border justice, that I lead to southern Arizona every year. Here is my journal entry from the day:


Wednesday, 3/16/2011: We drove to Phoenix to meet with Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County and the self-styled “toughest sheriff in America”. The visit was the result of Rabbi Lori’s friendship with Len Sherman, Sheriff Joe’s biographer. ((Rabbi Lori Schneide was the Hillel Jewish chaplain at USC at the time.)) We arrived to find Fox “News” cameras focused on us. (Fox edited out the tough questions our students asked, and indicated he had “won over” some of our students – which definitely wasn’t the case: further evidence that Fox has no meaningful standard of journalism.) Our students handled him brilliantly. They charmed him and flattered him and he ate it up. “Smart kids” he said. Then the students started asking hard questions. Jennifer, who was afraid she’d get too emotional, stole the show with her insightful and incisive questions/comments – wow! Theresa, our student from Beijing, told a story of a migrant from the provinces of China who was “profiled” and abused by a Shanghai cop. The migrant came back and shot up the police station and killed 12 people. “This ethnic profiling, I think it can have bad consequences,” she said to him.

I asked him “You’re Catholic and supposedly ‘pro-life’- so why not a cross stickpin rather than a pistol on your tie?” “Don’t want to mix religion in politics,” he said. “That pistol is your religion, Joe!” I said. He ushered us into his office: it was a museum to his stupendous ego. There was a wonderful moment when Jessica, from London, found herself posing for pictures seated behind Joe’s desk!

Joe sent us to his “Tent Jail” after our 1.5 hour meeting with him. The short-term, low-risk prisoners live in tents in 130 degree weather. (You can’t house risky prisoners in tents! – negating the whole point of Joe’s rhetoric about the tent jail.) Clearly the jail guards don’t want to deal with the heat, either – another reason the much-touted tent jail turns out to be so tiny compared to the rest of the facility, which looks like any other jail in the country. A sign on the front of the jail read “Illegal Aliens Not Allowed” (to visit prisoners). But so what? Nobody can get into any U.S. jail without a valid I.D. I discovered that Sheriff Joe isn’t the toughest sheriff in America. He’s just the loudest and most obnoxious.

We got to go behind the curtain and see the real Wizard of Oz that day, and came away unimpressed. Arpaio was all smoke and mirrors, his blather all for show, devoid of substance. When we watched Fox “News” that night, my students were horrified at the way their conversation with him was misrepresented. At Arpaio’s jail, it was obvious that his deputies disrespected him for being more of a media maven than a sheriff. What’s so tough about a sheriff who can’t win an election or a beat a court case?

In pardoning Joe Arpaio, Donald Trump convicted himself. Takes a fellow dinosaur to know one. Maricopa County, overwhelmingly Republican, voted Arpaio out of office in the last election. Likewise, Trump lost the popular vote by 2,850,000 votes. The pardon is a sorry spectacle of one loser bucking-up another.

What I learned on March 11, 2011 was confirmed again on November 8, 2016: politics is show business for ugly people. But the consequences of that show business can be devastating in the real world. I and my students learned a lot from ex-Sheriff Joe. If we care about justice, peace, and the protection of the vulnerable in our society, we’ve got to put political show business to work for our values. We’ve got to make compassion and kindness and decency look as good as they really are, using all the tools of communication available to us. The dinosaurs are on their way out: it’s just a matter of time. But to speed up their extinction, we’ve got serious work ahead of us.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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