Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Posts Tagged ‘civil liberties’

Joe Arpaio, Skip Gates, and our authoritarian culture

Posted by Kevin on August 2, 2009

“I’m an equal-opportunity law-enforcement guy – I lock everybody up.” -Sheriff Joe Arpaio

[in reference to the Skip Gates arrest] “…to me, this situation actually has far broader implications about all citizens’ relationship to the police and the way we are expected to respond to authority, regardless of race. I’ve watched too many taser videos over the past few years featuring people of all races and both genders being put to the ground screaming in pain, not because they were dangerous or threatening and not because they were so out of control there was no other way to deal with them, but because they were arguing with police and the officer perceived a lack of respect for the badge.” Digby

I always cringe whenever Joe Arpaio’s name pops up in the news. I have trouble even saying his name without throwing the phrase “that fucking fascist” in front of it.

For those who don’t know, Arpaio is sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and somewhat of a national figure. His reputation as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” has gotten him multiple book deals and a reality TV show, and made him a hero to the right. In the present instance, he’s the subject of a profile by William Finnegan in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker, which unfortunately isn’t available online. But if you can find it, it’s an excellent read. A couple good summaries can be found at Feministing and Immigration Impact.

I don’t want to go into much detail (you can find plenty of info at the sources previously cited), but basically, the problem with Arpaio is his brutally inhumane county jail, his flagrant abuses of power (including harassment of critics by his deputies), his transformation of the sheriff’s department into an immigration enforcement agency (and his subsequent racial profiling of Hispanics), and the fact that he’s a total publicity whore. His office is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, and there have been thousands of lawsuits alleging abuse filed against the department (resulting in $43 million in costs for the county). In one outstanding example, Finnegan writes that the family of an inmate killed by deputies received an $8.25 million settlement “after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.” Even the mayor of Phoenix has denounced what he describes as Arpaio’s “reign of terror.”

In short, Arpaio is a sadistic, racist, authoritarian thug. I wasn’t kidding when I called him a fascist.

So why do I care so much about this? I don’t have any personal attachment to Arpaio or Arizona politics. But it bothers me what Arpaio’s popularity says about us as a culture. He’s not just some obscure backwater nutjob. As Finnegan notes:

Maricopa County is not a modest, out-of-the-way place. It includes Phoenix, covers more than nine thousand square miles, and has a population of nearly four million. Joe Arpaio has been sheriff there since 1993. He has four thousand employees, three thousand volunteer posse members, and an over-worked media-relations unit of five.

Finnegan further points out that Arpaio remains the most popular political figure in Arizona, despite his scandals. In fact, it might be because of them. As Ann at the Feministing article I linked to argues:

Arpaio is popular because he’s hateful. He racially profiles Latinos, his ratings go up. He divides families and goes out of his way to deport peaceful people who are just here to make a living, his ratings go up. He treats jail inmates — some of whom have not even been convicted of a crime — as subhuman, his ratings go up. He sort of functions as a conduit for the worst impulses in our society.

And Arpaio’s message clearly resonates with a lot of people outside Arizona. I don’t know if it’s a majority, but it’s undeniably widespread. Our country is still very much in love with his brand of “tough on crime” horseshit. I remember the first time I heard about Arpaio: it was through a chain email from my grandparents talking about how cool he is and how they wished we had a sheriff like him. (MyRightWingDad has an example of this) And at the time, I thought, “Wow, what a fucking fascist.” But my family loved it. The people he abuses are just criminals (and mostly brown), after all, so who cares what happens to them? [Actually, many of the people detained by Arpaio are awaiting trial and haven’t actually been convicted of anything, but I doubt this is a distinction many of his supporters care about.]

So what does this say about us as a culture? To me, it says that there are some ugly authoritarian impulses in the American psyche, and a lot of inhuman callousness toward certain classes of people – criminals, foreigners, the poor, etc. We think the authorities should have a mostly free hand, and that if they target you then you must have done something to deserve it. We don’t think we’ll ever end up someplace like Arpaio’s tent city – we’re good people, and only bad people get sent there. Think this has something to do with our relative lack of outrage about civilian casualties in our wars, or the torture and abuse of detainees in the “War on Terror”? When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Bill Maher drew attention to the parallel between that issue and our prison policies [this is from his book New Rules, which in turn is from his show Real Time with Bill Maher]:

[Abu Ghraib happened because] we’re also comfortable pretending that anyone in America who winds up in prison deserves not just loss of freedom but a brutalizing, terrifying trip to hell…

In a way, we are all Lynndie England because we know what’s happening in our prisons and we clearly don’t care. We tell ourselves the convenient lie that anyone who bears the label “criminal” or “terrorist” is irredeemable, subhuman psycho scum, and so whatever happens to them behind bars is justified, when the truth is that millions of nonviolent Americans have been traumatized for life in our prisons simply because they either did drugs or made a bad judgment, usually when they were young, stupid, and drunk – you’d think President Bush could relate.

Another example of our authoritarian culture can be found in the response to “Gatesgate.” I’m sure just about everyone reading this has heard the story by now, where Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his own home for “disorderly conduct,” in other words for failing to show proper deference to a police officer. Not for threatening Officer Crowley, or refusing to comply with his orders, but rather just for talking back. One could argue Gates was being a jerk – but who wouldn’t be mad in that situation? And how does that justify arresting him? Is there any law requiring him to respect police officers?

This sort of thing happens all the time, and unlike Gates a lot of people don’t get off with just an arrest; they get beaten, tased, or even shot. And cops often face little to no consequences for doing it. As Ian Welch at OpenLeft points out:

My interactions with police in the US have all reinforced to me that even something as simple as a question is interpreted by many policy [sic] as a direct assault on their authority, and that they have no tolerance for any such thing. If a policeman in the US asks you to do something, or tells you, you’d best do it, right now, whether he has the right to order you around or not. And if you don’t, be ready to deal with the consequences.

The real problem, though, is the complete lack of public outcry over stuff like what happened to Gates. There’s a lot of people out there who see no problem with this. Some of Officer Crowley’s defenders, like the one quoted in Digby’s post on the matter, explicitly argue that either we give police a completely free hand, or we content ourselves with living in a Mad Max-style lawless wasteland; as if those are the only two options. And it’s not at all uncommon for people to say things like, “Well, Gates should’ve known better than to mouth off to a cop; he got what he deserved.” As Digby put it, “I have discovered that my hackles automatically going up at such authoritarian behavior is not necessarily the common reaction among my fellow Americans, not even my fellow liberals.” Even if they don’t necessarily agree with Crowley, they think it’s pointless to resist. The only reason anyone even notices is this case is because the victim was someone prominent.

We as a culture often mindlessly submit to authority, and don’t place much value on civil liberties. Hence the non-outrage over torture and warrantless wiretapping; and hence you get even many progressives arguing that it’s okay that Obama isn’t doing more to roll back Bush admin abuses of power, and is even embracing or expanding them, because health-care, the economy, etc., are so much more important. Who cares if we live in a dictatorship as long as the guy running it has a (D) next to his name?

So why should civil liberties and the rule of law matter? To quote Digby’s post yet again, “Police are emboldened when they repeatedly get away with using bullying, abusive tactics against average citizens who have not been convicted of any crimes.” Even if the officers have the best of intentions, that kind of power inevitably leads to abuse, because there’s nothing to keep it in check. And it never stops at just the “bad” people, but quickly spreads to anyone they deem a problem. If they can do it to poor blacks and Hispanics (let alone a Harvard professor), they can do it to you too. That’s something to keep in mind since, as Ted Rall points out, many white people have police horror stories of their own.

That’s why I care so much about Joe Arpaio or the Gates arrest, and why I’d deny that I’m trying to undermine the police when I complain about violations of civil liberties or abuses of power. Instead, I’m trying to keep the cops honest.

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