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The Fall of Sheriff Joe Arpaio

A story of powerful organizing

Election night 2016: Sheriff Joe Arpaio is voted out of office. Community organizers in Arizona peacefully accomplished a task that had previously seemed impossible: In the same year that Donald Trump was elected, they took down one of the most extreme anti-immigrant politicians in the United States. Through art-infused protests and community-building efforts, the organizers built the bridges needed within Phoenix to vote Arpaio out of office. What politicians would like us to forget, art forces us to remember.

These citizens’ commitment to long-term organizing shows us how we can stand with other immigrant communities — not just in Arizona, but across the country. Here’s how we can win again.

Who Is Joe Arpiao?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio served six terms as the sheriff of Maricopa County. He started his first term in 1993 after leaving his role as head of Arizona’s Drug Enforcement Agency. By 1994, Arpaio was already under investigation by the Department of Justice for abuse in his jails. Though the population in his county is currently 30.5 percent Hispanic/Latin@ (compared to 56.5 percent white, non-Hispanic/Latin@), Arpaio made targeting the Latino community — through violent rhetoric and abuse of undocumented immigrants — the bedrock of his election campaigns.

The DOJ’s investigation into Arpaio’s practices opened in 2008, on the basis that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) may have violated the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The DOJ found “reasonable cause to believe” that the MCSO was targeting members of its community based on their race and their grasp of English and was singling out those who were public critics of Arpaio and his policies.

Some of Arpaio’s typical tactics for targeting undocumented workers included raiding workplaces, making frequent traffic stops, and patrolling sites where day laborers frequently gathered. He bragged about creating the first female chain gang in the United States and, later, youth chain gangs in his prisons. Beyond the racial profiling problems, the DOJ also found many incidents of excessive force and sexual abuse and expressed concern that the these policies seriously damaged trust between the Latino community and the sheriff’s department, limiting local law enforcement’s effectiveness in serving the full community.

What Were Local Organizers Facing?

Without support in government, local organizers emerged to support the community whose voices—and rights—were frequently ignored or abused by their “representatives.” Without a voice in government, communities are forced to make their presence known and recognized in other ways, especially when their opinions challenge the status quo.

Immigration can be a tricky topic to discuss with the average American voter. Especially in economically depressed areas—where jobs are scarce and undocumented labor provides an off-record, wage-only alternative to the more-expensive health care and insurance packages for unionized workers—tensions can run high, and rhetoric often turns violent quickly.

Organizers against Arpaio would need to present their overall goal (a safe community for all of its members, regardless of immigration status and background) with an immediate action (defeating Arpaio in the upcoming election). And not just that: In the years leading up to the challenging 2016 election, organizers also needed to create hope that change was possible and that Arpaio’s reelection was not a foregone conclusion to rally the community to participate and organize.

To make matters worse, Arizona’s election procedures were another impediment. In 2013, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down, meaning that states with a history of voter repression no longer needed to review their election procedures with the federal government.

In Arizona, this meant new election procedures that included a dual-registration program, under which voters were required to register separately to vote in local and federal elections. Arizona also reduced the number of polling stations in state from 200 to 60, all but guaranteeing prohibitively long lines at the polls on Election Day, and offered very little transparency on which polling places were closed and why. From afar, these measures appear to target people in Arizona’s lower-income communities, who often cannot afford to travel to an inconveniently located poll and wait in line for hours to vote.

Where They Began: Art and Performance

Immigration reform organizers are challenged with making undocumented and documented immigrant communities visible while protecting and respecting their privacy. They also need to build empathy across languages, socioeconomic classes, and backgrounds in a time of heightened fear and uncertainty. The 24 years Arpaio spent in office were a long time to build expectations that his brand of abuse was “just the way things are,” and so the critique of this system and the alternatives needed to be clear and tangible to a wide audience. It’s much easier to be a silent bystander and accept “fate” than it is to rebuild a new future — so how would organizers create the sense of community necessary to spur action?

They did it through art and performance. In 2015, the Puente Human Rights Movement, an Arizona-based immigrant justice organization, set up fake coffins and body bags around ICE’s Phoenix headquarters on the three-month anniversary of the death of José de Jesús Deniz-Sahagun, an immigrant who died in an ICE detention center. Puente memorialized the 150 individuals who died in ICE’s custody between 2005 and 2015 and demanded accountability from the Arizona government.

The implications were clear: Assuming you or someone you knew was in the wrong place at the wrong time, would you want to take the risk of facing abusive law enforcement on your own? Would you tolerate a system that long assumed you were guilty of a serious crime, without a just process? Organizers offered a clear critique of the system and showed the government they were watching.

With the promise of change that can come through an election year, Bazta Arpaio, a campaign by a group of Arizona-based organizers focused on rallying the wider community to remove Arpaio from office, created an inflatable and handcuffed Sheriff Arpaio puppet that traveled through Phoenix behind a red bus playing cumbia. The parade was memorable for its clear message—remove Arpaio from office with your votes this November — but it was also a celebration introducing a clear way for bystanders to participate. Better yet, it sent people the message that there is a community of people behind them saying it was time for this kind of abuse to end.

Performances like these are effective in three “lives” or stages:

The Event: The first life of a performance is the live event itself. It rallies people who are already involved in the cause and their close social networks. It also helps to draw in new supporters. Early in the performance event, it’s especially important to gather a large, passionate crowd so others who are peripherally involved or completely new to the topic see the event and are either drawn in by its energy or made curious enough to investigate further on their own.

Social Media Presence and Discussion: An important second life of a performance is its immediate discussion and presence in social media. This continues to draw interest from others who are less directly affected or close to the topic and provides an immediate primary source for journalists and others who are curious about the event and the policy its organizers are discussing. Further, it gives introverts or others who might be wary of attending a public event a way to participate and raise their voices. Organizers with a strong social media and internet-based presence can then introduce calls to action with varying degrees of commitment, such as “march with us at our next rally,” or “read about this policy issue and inform yourself as a voter,” or “canvass leading up to the election and help turn out voters on Election Day.”

Formal Media Coverage: All this information filters into the third life of an event—formal coverage by media organizations. Sometimes these events will not be covered, which makes the record it leaves on social media even more important. But other times, stories and interviews from an event will be written and distributed throughout a wider geographic area, depending on the platform’s reach.

Word of mouth is still an incredibly important mechanism for community organizers, and the more powerful and dramatic their performance pieces, the more chatter they can expect from communities outside their immediate supporters.

Beyond Performance: What Happens Next?

A key step in building momentum for any political movement is to help convert general interest into action. Organizers who are able to offer different tiers of engagement to their communities are also able to keep people effectively engaged and entice them to volunteer more of their time in the future. Some people have a demanding workload or family life but are deeply interested in an issue and want to stay informed so they can share what they’ve learned within their network. They may also be able to support the organizers and wider community with financial or in-kind contributions. This is an important step toward shifting cultural expectations, especially in a setting where the status quo has a tight grip on local politics.

Other supporters have time to volunteer. Given clear instructions and expectations, volunteers are an important part of public debate and collective action around an issue. Election years offer many different, tangible ways to get new people involved in actions related to immigration reform: Canvassing, phone banking, and driving people to their local polling stations are all common and effective ways that activists can demonstrate public support for an issue. (And they’re effective in other ways: Research by Joshua Kalla and David Broockman published in Science, for example, proved that canvassing, when done correctly, can actually reduce transphobia.)

Beyond Election Day, it’s important to energize the community to be active and outspoken. Often this kind of participation is less dramatic and tangible than some of the opportunities around elections, but it’s crucial toward shifting culture. It means being ready to have uncomfortable conversations and ask difficult questions when neighbors talk about immigrants. It means intervening when you witness abuse. It means demonstrating in public when law enforcement mistreats anyone from your community. And it means being kind to strangers, even when their differences confuse you.

Time and time again, I see politicians tap into apocalyptic visions of our collective future — somehow, they argue that the best way to prevent the apocalypse and grow is to “purify” our communities. Rather than celebrate diversity of thought and background — and the discomfort that comes from learning to engage and grow with the diversity around us — we are encouraged to isolate ourselves deeper and deeper into the realm of the like-minded.

But here is something activists know well: Hate will not feed our communities in the long run. Hate consumes and crumbles the trust that leads people to organize things like book clubs, volunteer with local schools, or say hello to their neighbors.

Hope is a choice, and it requires practice. Hope is not the absence of doubt or fear; it is about a commitment to healing and asking hard questions that will scare you. Communities that grow together and form longer-term relationships with one another have faith that they will grow together.

The Night Joe Arpaio Was Fired from Office

Despite the hours of lines at Arizona’s polling stations, heavy spending by Arpaio’s campaign, and an election cycle filled with anti-immigrant sentiments, Arpaio lost his bid for his seventh term. Organizers and their supporters gathered outside Arpaio’s office with an “Eviction Notice” sign to celebration their victory, chanting “Si se pudo!” (“Yes, we did!”) The handcuffed Arpaio puppet was left outside his office in Phoenix just hours after the results were announced. Bazta Arpaio had won.

Hope in Arizona meant more than two decades of vigilance and standing up against the abuse citizens witnessed in their home state. It meant peacefully removing Joe Arpaio from office despite significant barriers to voting on Election Day. And most recently, it meant a criminal conviction for ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, after years of casework and documentation ensured that he could not hide his abuses any longer, followed by President Trump indicating a willingness to pardon Arpaio.

Arizona has a new sheriff, and voters sent a clear message that it’s time for immigration reform — the old ways aren’t acceptable there anymore.

Ph.D. Candidate at Princeton (Labor, Technology, Law, and Informal Economies) | previously research + content at TED

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