The Wild West Again? Arizona’s Race Vigilantes
Days after Federal Judge G. Murray Snow of the Arizona District court handed down his ruling stating that the Maricopa County sheriff’s office unconstitutionally used racial profiling to enforce immigration law, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has gone forward to state that the sheriff’s office will appeal the court’s decision.
A quick refresher: everything started with Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), which made it the state’s responsibility to determine an individual’s immigration status during a lawful detention or arrest, if there was “reasonable suspicion” (the same standard for New York’s Stop and Frisk laws, which have been covered at length here on TWiB). Of course, there was no way this could end well. SB 1070 was taken to court, and in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. This did nothing to quell the sentiment that spawned the law, and soon, it was Joe Arpaio to the rescue. Over the past few years, Arpaio had continued to detain and arrest Arizonans, using race and ethnicity as a basis for “reasonable suspicion”. That is, until now.
In his ruling on a class action suit against the sheriff’s office last Friday, Judge Snow found that the sheriff’s law enforcement policy was indeed discriminatory against Latino Arizonans. Quick on the heels of the ruling, Arpaio released a statement last week, expressing his intent to repeal the law, though he would suspend the sheriff’s immigration enforcement activities, as was in line with the ruling. Arpaio’s statements are but the first in what is sure to be an extended battle over immigration policy at the state level, rather than the national reform talks that have been the order of the day.
The intrigue of this whole story is that the Latino population of Arizona was held to be criminal by a single man, and that this single man could change the machinations of the state’s power structures to better fit his own interpretation of what law and order looked like; this is an American conundrum at its heart. Put simply: it was Joe Arpaio who decided that not only was immigration (an issue perhaps more on the scope of international relations) a problem that he deemed necessary to address, but also, that he, and he alone, had the correct way to stop it. This is regardless of the lives that could be torn asunder, or the rights of common folk that would be thrown by the wayside. All based on the perceptions of one man.
A growing unease has taken hold of the conservative parts of America. We, too, on the left can relate to the feeling (lest we forget the Bush years, try as we may), but there is a call for drastic individual action on the right that we have shied away from. It can be heard in the rhetoric of the right, in their warnings of a coming new revolution against the leftward swing of American politics. It can be seen in actions, like the upcoming open carry march on Washington, D.C. to “put the government on notice”. It can be seen, with horrid clarity, in the death of Trayvon Martin. Taking into consideration the actions of men like Joe Arpaio and the zeitgeist of the right, there arises a question: are we on the verge of a conservative vigilante explosion?
Of course, the answer to this question will be purely conjecture at this point in time, but the fact that such a question can be considered tells the sorry state of the right, and the need for a reevaluation of the means by which we on the left want to approach them politically. We’ve reached a lull between election cycles’ post-post mortems and pre-campaigns, where the direction of political dialogue can be shifted before the mass of another election year falls upon us, making it seemingly the prime time to begin a strong denunciation of the manners that the right is suggesting change. We’ve questioned rhetoric before, during the rise of the Tea Party, but did not do so effectively. The result of that failing could be seen in the 2010 mid-term elections.
The left has been spread thin, true, fighting obstructionism in governance. But this obstructionism is dangerous in more than one way. Not only does it prevent the advancement of the policies we the people voted for, but it also creates a sort of “null environment” where the dismantling and destruction of our systems is seen as a better outcome than to allow them change, as we, the people, have seen fit. Individual, lone wolf-style action can grow unfettered in this environment, as folks are increasingly shown that radical action is not only an appropriate, but necessary course of action to take.
Whether or not Zimmerman and Arpaio are indicative of a coming larger movement is yet to be seen. However, when we as a community must deal with these individuals who are given complicit permission by those in power on the right, we must analyze and try to make sense of the conditions that made their actions possible. There is a moment now where we can reframe the means by which we argue and debate politics to make the “null environment” a non-option again, and in doing so, put the emphasis in politics back on helping the country as a whole, rather than holding it hostage to make it conform to the ideas of the few who put themselves above all others.
[1913, W.A. Milne, Wild West troupe, Maryborough. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland]