Arizona Edition: The Arpaio Era and the Lasting Impacts, Part 2

Jun 28, 2021

Part two of this series aired on KAWC’s Arizona Edition on June 25, 2021. To listen to part one visit here.   

Host (Lou Gum):  

I'm Lou Gum. This is Arizona Edition on KAWC.

My guest today is Terry Greene Sterling. She and co-author Jude Joffe-Block wrote, Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance

Last week we spoke about Arpaio's background as the son of an Italian immigrant, his time at the Drug Enforcement Agency going back to the beginning of the drug war in the US, and his talent for shaping his persona and the narratives around a variety of issues, including immigration.

The book is also an exploration of the fallout of Arpaio's policies and how they inspired a Latino resistance movement in the state that, Sterling says, is asserting its political power still.


Other states have a seemingly deeper history of Latino political movements than Arizona, at least in terms of turning their concerns into political power.Why was this organization around Arpaio important in terms of creating that Latino political resistance in Arizona, and where is it today? 

Terry Greene Sterling (TGS):  

I think, first of all, that that resistance, it was always in Arizona. But it has had different iterations. Let's not forget that, you know, Arizona, like so much of the of the West, was part of Mexico, and was ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican American War, most of Arizona. And so that set the people who had been Mexican citizens, or we're still Mexican citizens in some cases, it put them on a, on a flat, dangerous path. Just a little while after that war we have the American Civil War and Arizona, Southern Arizona, joins the Confederacy. And I think those two pivotal historic events have caused a legacy really of racism and injustice and there's always been a resistance to it, but it's taken different forms. And so we see in the 1930s there were deportations of American citizens who worked in, who were, you know, American citizens born in the United States, deported to Mexico in order to placate an angry white base.  

These folks, you know, Alfredo Gutierrez, his dad joined a resistance in a mining town. He came back after being deported and joined the resistance in the mining town. 

So, we've had strong resistance for many years, and there have been incremental successes. Alfredo Gutierrez himself was in the Chicano movement. The Chicanos he had a very strong presence in Arizona and impacted a lot of educational policies. So, I mean, it's always been there.

The interesting part was that probably Maricopa County was, you know, easily one of the places where there was need for resistance, where there hadn't been as much. So it started building in Maricopa County during the Arpaio years.  

Where is it now? It's very strong. The lesson I learned, you know, from this book, from the research that we did for this book and from the hundreds of hours of interviews we did with members of the resistance, is that, you know, it never ends. You win one battle, but you don't rest on your laurels. Or you lose one battle, but you don't feel sorry for yourself. You just keep going on. So now the resistance is full of wonderful young people who were mentored by the older people and they are working in voting rights and they're working in helping immigrants with trauma issues. And there are some who are working against the, you know, working to see what can be done about this new Maricopa County audit. So they're still going strong.



Ultimately, Arpaio was taken to court in a class action case, Melendres V. Arpaio. He's found guilty of racial profiling. He's told to stop. He doesn't. The Justice Department later finds he racially profiled. A presidential election is afoot also. Who was captivated by the other first, Donald Trump or Joe Arpaio?



That is such a good question, Lou. I believe, it's hard to say, because the two, Arpaio and Trump knew about each other because they were both devotees of this birther conspiracy theory in which there was an effort to, you know, discredit President Obama and say that he was born in Kenya. It was a crazy conspiracy theory and Trump bought it and was very interested in it and Arpaio knew that. And Arpaio also launched an investigation of the Obama's birth certificate that was very controversial.  

So, they knew about each other, so it's hard to tell who became infatuated with the other first. But Arpaio endorsed Trump very, very early in his bid for President.  

Trump always bragged about having Arpaio as an endorser and came to Arizona frequently and held these rallies in which he would say Arpaio’s name and the whole, you know, the whole crowd would jump and shout and clap because Arpaio was so beloved. And Arpaio would open for Trump at these rallies and Arpaio went to the 2016 Republican convention and Trump gave him a primetime speech opportunity.  

He spoke in, you know, in primetime on national TV, I think on the night Trump was nominated. 

Arpaio later went to Trump's inauguration and Trump played there, the song that they both loved the best, and that song is "My Way" made famous by Frank Sinatra.  

They had a mutual admiration society, and ultimately Arpaio really needed Trump because he was found, Arpaio was found, to have committed by a judge, he was found to have committed criminal contempt of court by not following judge's orders on immigration enforcement. And so Arpaio had the, you know, he faced the possibility of jail time. It was a remote possibility, but Trump jumped in and pardoned Arpaio before Arpaio even got sentenced


I want to ask about his reaction to that, but if we could stick with the court case first for a moment. 

It's interesting because of this idea again of Arpaio personas coming up when he's called to testify. Tell us about that?



Arpaio, when he testifies, he's told me he knows how to testify. He told us he knew how to testify. He testified a lot. He was very confident of his time on the stand because he testified for years and years and years in different capacities. First as a drug agent, Drug Enforcement agent, and then as the Sheriff. But he in the Melendres case, as in depositions, and so on, he presented as a very confused old man. Hee didn't know, you know, what binder to look at when, you know, the lawyer said please look at page 33 in your first binder. Arpaio would fumble with the pages and he often said when he testified in different places that he had a touch of the flu. He did say that he and his agency, he and his deputies, never racially profiled. 

But he was confused, he was hard of hearing, he didn't quite understand the questions. He was hesitant, which is a completely different persona than we see as Arpaio, you know, presented himself as Sheriff, which was tough and confident, and on top of things



Ultimately, Trump does pardon Arpaio. You spoke to him after that, although not immediately. What did he say? It didn't turn out to be the victory lap he was hoping.



He was hoping, yes. What happened was there was a great backlash against that pardon, not only among, you know, lawyers and scholars, but also just everyday people. And he was starting to get some pretty ugly hate mail, and he hadn't anticipated that at all. And he was, he was shocked. And he said, you know, now I've lost my America's toughest sheriff title. Now they just have two words for me, you know, and one is racist. And he was very upset about it.

He did Lou subsequently run for office, though he ran in the primary for Senator against Martha McSally. 



Unsuccessfully. And Kelli Ward was in that race. Sort of going after the same vote it seemed.



Yes, that vote was split up and some of Arpaio’s fans went with Kelli Ward and they said they had no idea why Arpaio at his age would try to run for Senator. He told us it would be great if he could be in the Senate because then he could back up his friend Donald Trump. But he didn't succeed, and then he ran for Sheriff in the, in the primary, and once again he didn't win the primary. So it looks like, I don't know if he's going to, he's 89 now. I don't know if he's going to enter any more races. 



The big takeaway from your book for me, besides the really interesting history of this larger than life character in Joe Arpaio, is the legacy that he leaves in, and I don't want to gloss over it because we talked so much about him, which is probably normal, but the legacy he leaves in the normal people that were motivated, activated and inspired to counter him. 

Why was it so important for you to share those very personal stories about the people opposing Arpaio?  



Because I don't think that we get a chance to really understand the personal cost of activism. First of all, you know me, you know me pretty well, and you know that I like to try, you know, Jude and I both, my co-author and I both, like to get at what shapes a person. What makes a person tick? I think that's what makes the reading so interesting. And with the people who fought so hard against Arpaio, we found it really important to understand how this impacted them and what their struggles were and what their victories were.  

Sort of, the counterbalance to Arpaio in the book is the activist Lydia Guzman and she was so motivated to try and help families and people ensnared in these raids, who were really... I mean, I don't know, did you ever cover any of these sweeps in Maricopa County? 



Only secondarily, right? Not personally. 



Well, when you were in the middle of one of these sweeps it felt like you were not in the in the United States of America anymore. It felt... It was an eerie feeling.

First of all, there was a lot of, a lot of noise, right. Lots of cars, lots of sirens, people weeping, children screaming. The smell of, you know, motor exhaust. And there were often people on horseback, you know, trying to keep crowds back or standing by these command centers where zip-tied people would be led up and processed in these command centers. And people like Alfredo Gutierrez would stand with bullhorn screaming, don't give them anything don't cooperate, just ask for a lawyer, don't cooperate, don't tell them anything. And it just felt very, it it felt like another world, it didn't feel like the United States of America at all, to me.  

And so, Lydia was in these sweeps all the time trying to help people and gathering information for this racial profiling lawsuit that you mentioned, and she was very much of everything. She served as a social worker. She served as a you know, as a detective and she served as an advocate. So, this, this consumed her because the pain was so palpable. She lost her husband and her husband divorced her. And he adored her. He said, I adore her, I fiercely, always respect her, but I can't, I can't live with it.  

She also lost her home. And yet she never gave up and continued and it in the end of the book you can see that what happens in the end to her and it's a good thing because she prevails, and she, her life turns out to be very good life in a very satisfying life.

But the sacrifices that she made were tremendous and the same with Carlos Garcia.The same with Alfredo. The same with all of them. They were also, there were unauthorized immigrants who put everything on the line to come join these street actions. And the purpose of the street actions was to get people to pay attention to what was happening and to not look away from the truth. And these unauthorized immigrants would take part in these actions knowing that they were risking deportation.  

So there was a lot of humanity and struggle and bravery and victory and failure in these people's lives. 



Finally, your assessment of Arpaio today -  emboldened, still defiant, defeated, done?  



He has said that, you know, very often that he's a victimof the Obama holdovers in the conspiracy, you know, kind of the Obama folks in the Justice Department who went after him because he enforced immigration laws. You know, George Soros and a bunch of other usual players, and that he's fighting them and that he'll always fight. But he blames what happened to him on this conspiracy. 

He's 89 years old. His wife has recently died and I think I think I haven't heard much about him, although he did, he does still do some speaking engagements. So, I don't think he's emboldened. 

No, I think he's very much the same Joe Arpaio that he won't go down without a fight. 



Terry Greene Sterling, author with Jude Joffe-Block of Driving While Brown Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance. What a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for spending this extended time with us. 



My pleasure, thank you.