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Arpaio’s Pardon and the Rise of Militarized Police: The View From Phoenix

It was a war zone initiated by the Phoenix Police Department.

Organizer Alejandra Gomez speaks at a press conference about Trump's visit to Phoenix. (Photo: Diego Lozano)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 68th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation about Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio with Alejandra Gomez, the co-director at Living United for Change in Arizona: LUCHA.

Sarah Jaffe: You were at the rally and counter-rally outside of Trump’s infamous talk last Tuesday night in Phoenix, right? Tell us how it went from where you were?

Alejandra Gomez: I will actually start from when we heard about the pardon. We heard that “45” [Trump] was coming and we heard very quickly after that he was thinking of pardoning Arpaio. We had a couple of our young leaders with us during the staff meeting and immediately there were reactions to that because a lot of those young people worked in the coalition during the Bazta Arpaio campaign to get him out of office. For us, [through] all of that work, we demonstrated that they no longer wanted a criminal in office, and after the election finally the judges ruled that Arpaio was found in contempt of court and completely defying the judge’s orders to stop profiling and targeting communities of color and Latino immigrant communities. To us, that was what we knew to be true all along, it was what our families were experiencing. Finally, Arpaio was deemed a criminal and was taken out of office.

To hear that the President of the United States was going to come and pardon Arpaio reinforced what we already know and what we felt during the campaign: that this president has been igniting division and hate during the campaign and now, emboldening in his administration racism, bigotry and white supremacy.

There was a lot of nervousness going into the Trump rally. One of our young people when we were huddling before going to the rally said, “I am scared to go to this rally because of everything that I have been seeing, because of what happened in Charlottesville. It feels terrible to be scared of the President of the United States.” That was a very sobering comment. We said, “Well, we have been doing demonstrations for a really long time and our community is resilient, our community knows how to fight back, and we are going there today because we need to show this administration — because this administration has targeted every single community, the Latino community, immigrant community, LGBT community, transgender community — that we are standing in solidarity and we are against this agenda.”

It is a very terrible and backward time when we are having to tell the president of the United States to follow the rule of law and listen to the judicial system.

We went [as counter demonstrators to the rally] and it was a wonderful celebration of all of the various communities coming together to demonstrate together and to push back together on this president. And the community coming together saying to our president, “You need to follow the rule of law and you need to listen to the voters and you need to listen to the judicial system.” It is a very terrible and backward time when we are having to tell the president of the United States to follow the rule of law and listen to the judicial system, because he has gone completely rogue.

The police deployed tear gas into the middle of the streets because they wanted to keep the crowd contained. There was no warning.

We were at the rally and folks were really chanting, celebrating. It was a wonderful display of all of the wonderful things that our community has been fighting for, which are equality and justice. Toward the end of the night, police officers were in full riot gear. It was completely unnecessary, one, because you had peaceful protesters. We built a relationship with the police department. We have had several actions and have shown that we know how to run respectful, strategic demonstrations. To see they were out in their full garb of riot gear with the masks and the shields and layers of vests on, their guns, rubber bullets, cop cars everywhere. I think that was more menacing than the Trump supporters. Toward the end of the night, there was still different parts of the community there, there were still women with their children there, fathers with their children, family members there together, and the police deployed tear gas into the middle of the streets because they wanted to keep the crowd contained. You just start to see communities run everywhere. There was no warning.

Shortly after that, I think someone threw a water bottle and because of that water bottle — mind you that the police are in all of their riot gear — they felt threatened by a water bottle and started to deploy rubber bullets and the “light bombs” (I am not sure what those are called, but they are meant to blind people), and it was a war zone. It was a war zone that was initiated by the Phoenix Police Department. Increasingly, we are seeing this militarization of the police department. We had seen it in other states and to experience it here in Arizona where we have marches with thousands of people…. Our state is no stranger to targeting of our communities for raids. And this was the first time that I had seen such a violent and aggressive display toward peaceful demonstrators.

Alejandra Gomez speaks at a press conference about Trump's visit to Phoenix. (Photo: Diego Lozano)(Photo: Diego Lozano)

Do you think it had something to do with the fact that Arpaio and his possible pardon was on the agenda or more likely, after Charlottesville?

Police are coming out with a lot more — I have seen them in SWAT gear with a previous action. So, I feel like slowly there is this trend of an increased police state. I think yesterday was the full coming out of it. One of the things that I know to be true from the experience yesterday is though Charlottesville happened, and that is a terrible and tragic incident where we lost a powerful freedom fighter, Heather [Heyer], the extreme right, the white supremacists, were not met in the same way that peaceful protesters were met here. And this was not directed at all —Phoenix PD did not direct anything toward the right. It was all toward the peaceful demonstrators. They changed their story, and to see that Mayor Stanton and Chief Jeri Williams were complicit in that coverup just shows the absolute lack of leadership.

Give us a little background on Arpaio and the things that made him require a pardon in the first place.

Arpaio is the type of person who always wanted to be in the media, and anything that really got him media attention he would do. So, Tent City was one of the worst ideas that could possibly happen. A complete violation of human rights and prisoners’ rights. What would happen in Tent City was, in Arizona, the temperatures reach about 120 degrees at any given time in the summer. You have prisoners outside with no air conditioning, people that have been incarcerated, outside with no air conditioning. There are outhouses for bathrooms. So, all of the feces and urine have stagnated, so you have that smell. You also have everything that is accumulating in terms of bacteria and all of that among the people that have been incarcerated.

On top of that, Sheriff Joe would make it known that he felt people that were in jail should not receive what he would consider food as a luxury. So, he would often give moldy bread and green macaroni to people that were in custody. People had also passed away in the jails because of the harsh conditions. That is just Tent City.

Under his jurisdiction there were smaller cities, these areas where you have largely Native American and Latino populations. In Surprise, Arizona, there were a number of rape cases that were being reported of young women, of young girls, and the sheriff was failing to investigate those rape cases. Millions of dollars were misappropriated. This was all before SB 1070. Then, the raids started to happen and Arpaio completely revamped all his vans and basically it looked worse than border patrol. They would have signs, “If you see an illegal person, report them.” Pictures of people. It was a terrible sight to see these vans. Outside of his office, he had a big military tank. All of that is like, “Why does a sheriff need a military tank?” … that goes back to the misappropriation of funds.

Arpaio would go into peoples’ homes, neighborhoods, supermarkets, the flea market, the shopping malls, anywhere where there were communities of color [and] Latino community in particular. He would go in and conduct raids to do roundups and detain and deport people. So, this separated thousands of families in Arizona. And during SB 1070, which was the “Show me your papers” law, you saw this mass exodus of people moving to other states or going back to Mexico. So, not only was there a misappropriation of funds, the terrible dehumanization of people that were in jail, and the uninvestigated cases of child rape, but this constant dehumanization and targeting of one community. So, all of that really built up this persona of who he was, not only here in Arizona, but across the nation. For Arizonans, when we had the election where Trump actually became president, for us it was such mixed feelings because we had just taken Arpaio out of office but elected a “national Arpaio” into office, which was Trump.

People have been talking about Trump’s sliding poll numbers and why he would want to pardon Arpaio. I wonder what the reaction has been from your organization and others who spent all this time organizing against Arpaio to this idea that Trump can just pardon him to win points with his base.

Our reaction is that he needs to pardon the victims of Arpaio. We are not shocked that this administration and this president would continue doing the things that he promised on his campaign trail. It was very clear that he had a white supremacist agenda and that he was going to do everything in his power to embolden white supremacy in this country. He is sticking to those promises.

Arizona is an interesting state for a lot of reasons. You guys played a pivotal role in the health care fight, with John McCain finally casting the deciding vote to not repeal the Affordable Care Act. You are going to have an upcoming messy Senate race, I assume in 2018. Give us a brief rundown of the overall political scene in Arizona right now. What is giving you hope for the future?

Arizona is very much in flux. There are a lot of changes happening. We are in a red state and a state that has been anti-immigrant for years and no one was paying attention to communities of color and building political power within communities of color and with undocumented communities. We, as a coalition of organizations said, “Well, we are going to do that work ourselves.”

Alongside the mass mobilizations and the powerful marches and displays from the community and organizations, there was voter registration that started to take place within our neighborhoods. Before, nobody was going and talking to our families about registering to vote and why their voice mattered and why they needed to cast their ballots. So, we started that work in 2010. That work has continued until today. So, where we saw 4 percent turnout rates in 2010, we saw 22 percent turnout rates this last election. That shift in politics and moving from being also Maricopa-centered and now really working in other counties like the Pima County area, really thinking statewide, along with all of the other politics that are happening.

In Arizona, there had not been a senate president at the state legislative level that had ever been recalled, and we were told, “Don’t do it” because Latinos didn’t have enough power and we [supposedly] weren’t going to be able to recall the senate president that was a co-author on SB 1070, the “Show me your papers” law. We were able to do it in 2011. So, with that voter registration, with those demonstrations, with our families learning the importance of showing up in the state capitol and going and demanding justice from their local representatives, their municipal representatives, and their federal representatives, we now have a city council that is largely Latino and it is progressive. We also, at the federal level, for years, and the congressional level, as well, we have a stronghold of major area of highly dense Latino populations and communities of color.

So, we have a vulnerable seat, which is the [Congresswoman Martha] McSally race. She is somebody that has to really be careful with how she votes, as well, because her district can easily flip. We are paying attention to that race. We have the potential, depending on how McCain is thinking, of [having] … two Senate seats open at the same time, with [Jeff] Flake. There are a lot of folks that are thinking of those seats right now and really looking to them.

Sen. Flake just released an article where he really called out his party. That pressure only happened because we have been in his office and really pushing him.

But, Flake has really turned a corner because of all of that political power that we are starting to build. He understands that he is dealing with an extremist party that is no longer the “good ole boys” Republican politics of the past. This is an extreme white supremacist agenda and Flake just released an article where he really called out his party for not having a spine and backbone. That pressure only happened because we have been in his office and we have been doing the voter registrations and we have been telling the stories of the community and really pushing him. He understands that he is vulnerable now because in the past we weren’t doing the work of voter registration and the community might not have been paying attention, but it is the politics of these days.

Arizona passed a minimum wage ballot initiative with paid sick days. In a right-to-work state, that is very powerful. That impacted close to a million people in the same year that we were also able to take out Arpaio. So, this state is definitely changing.

That is great. How can people keep up with you and with LUCHA?

If folks go to, they can find us there. That is our website. Then, my Twitter handle is @gomez_alex07. My Facebook would be Alejandra Gomez. That is how folks can find me.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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