Joe Arpaio, Thug Life

“Know, then, that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet…they have finally overcome freedom, and have done so in order to make people happy.” – The Brothers Karamazov.

A federal judge last week convicted former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of criminal contempt for refusing to obey a court order that demanded he refrain from racial profiling. Arpaio served the people of Maricopa County, Arizona for 24 years. Styling himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” his antics brought national attention (even a Reality Show). The honorable among us will hope that as a convict he is not subjected to the same thuggery he took pleasure in as a jail-keeper.


A brief sample: Among other penological innovations, Arpaio brought back the chain-gang, setting up his charges in a tent city where desert temperatures sometimes exceeded 130 degrees. As part of his apparent campaign to be cast as the villain in the inevitable Hollywood remake of Cool Hand Luke, he responded to complaints regarding the conditions by comparing the experience favorably to Iraq. He forced inmates to wear pink underwear – ostensibly to prevent theft, but one imagines ritual humiliation was not far from his mind. When a court ordered him to allow inmates television, he provided them C-SPAN and the Disney Channel – and threw in the Weather Channel for good measure, the better for them to foresee the experience of the next day’s chain gang. Members of his jail staff electrocuted already restrained prisoners to death, for no discernible reason other than sport.


The fun didn’t stop at the prison gates. On ol’ Joe’s watch, more than 400 sex crime cases went uninvestigated – he had other priorities, it seems. When the local Phoenix newspaper published their investigation of Arpiao’s real estate holdings (the smell of graft pervades this department), Arpaio dispatched subordinates to raid the paper’s offices and slap cuffs on the offending reporters. The current charges stem from certain “crime-suppression operations” whereby officers conducted sweeps of Latino neighborhoods, stopping more or less anyone with a swarthy complexion to determine their legal status. One Justice Department official declared it the “most egregious” case of racialized law enforcement he’d encountered. In 2011, a federal judge demanded he stop – Arpaio now contends the judge wasn’t specific enough. By one estimate the department paid out over $43 million in litigation damages during his tenure, to say nothing of the funds that had a habit of going missing.


“Law & Order” rhetoric holds a long pedigree in American discourse. It is not, as our progressive friends usually maintain, simply a racist dog whistle (though it can certainly be that): As Professor James Forman Jr. points out, such policies have a long history of support in minority communities as well. Some amount of this is a very straightforward exercise in what the college professors would call “otherizing” – jail is for those people, and, if they end up there, they probably deserve it (see the ubiquitous chain-emails celebrating Arpaio’s chain-ganging, all of which exude the tone of “got ya, suckers”). Class differentials amplify this instinct, such that the rules really are often being set by a different sort of people than those subjected to them (Forman argues this is true even within the black community, where the black middle class was traditionally far more concerned about racial profiling, which impacted them, than the abuse of street-toughs, which generally did not).

But the embrace of harshness as a path to safety is so common across parties and eras that it seems it must be something more elemental than mere balkanization. Libertarians – and, more broadly, what we might term “western liberals” – make a habit of assuming that their values speak to universal human desires; that everyone would come along if given the chance. But the mammalian instinct is more capricious than that. The increase in vote totals for popular authoritarianism over the past few years means oppression must speak to something within us as well.


“We shall convince them that they will only become free when they resign their freedom to us,” Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor explains to his savior. “They themselves will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember to what horrors of slavery and confusion your freedom led them.” Whether or not we ever do in fact reach the End of History, it remains within us to hit rewind. Autonomy, it turns out, is work, and the paternal always appeals. The current resident of Pennsylvania Avenue was elected as a great protector by those who, feeling themselves under fire, “don’t care if he’s a good person—they care that he’s a warrior for everything at odds with the elite opinion of the day.” And so do we elect our less-great protectors who promise the ills of our communities can be cured if only the boot stomps a bit harder on the shadows we catch flashes of in the alley.

Thus we are left with not so much a system of criminal justice, but a warehouse for storing up our paranoias in corporeal form. Fill the tent cities, drag the nets until the streets are clear. If tough ol’ Joe tosses a man in prison for 13 days for failing to use his turn signal, well these things happen, until they happen so much we lose track and each story is just one more brown face under a tent flap. One injustice is an outrage, a thousand is a statistic.

But, mercifully, these human flaws have their limit. Arpaio cost the county millions for his misbehavior, and perhaps our avarice outstrips our pugilism. This past November, the voters decided they’d had enough of Arpiao, ejecting him in favor of his Democratic opponent by an eleven-point margin. For context, the last Democrat Maricopa County preferred for president was Harry Truman. It takes a special sort of man to be defenestrated for draconian and bigoted Law & Order festishism by the same voters who supported Donald Trump. Sheriff Joe is that man.

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