Why Arpaio matters

James Fallows on why the pardon of Arpaio is so bad.

[The] main difference was the nature of Arpaio’s crime. While he is not the first official whose offense involved abuse of public powers—from Nixon on down, others fit that category—his is the first case I’m aware of where someone is pardoned for using state power toward racist ends.

That description of Arpaio’s crime may sound tendentious, but it’s what his conviction amounts to. For details, I very highly recommend a Twitter chronicle put out last night by Phoenix New Times, which has been covering Arpaio for two decades. Over at least the past decade, state and federal judges—most of the latter appointed by George W. Bush—have been criticizing Arpaio and his practices, and warning that they violate a range of anti-discrimination laws. In 2008, one Bush-appointed federal judge, Neil Wake, ruled in favor of the ACLU, which had claimed that Arpaio’s jailing practices were unconstitutional and abusive. Another Bush appointee, federal judge G. Murray Snow, ordered Arpaio to cease-and-desist racial profiling practices, and referred him for criminal prosecution when he refused to obey. In the Phoenix New Times account you’ll see links to a lot more.

This was Arpaio’s practice. It’s among the reasons that the voters of Maricopa County turned him out by more than a 12-point margin last fall, in the same election where they voted for Donald Trump by a margin of four points. And it is what Donald Trump has called “just doing his job” and has pardoned Arpaio for.

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The pardon is damaging for both immediate and longer-term reasons. The immediate significance is that the United States is in the middle of disputes for which Joe Arpaio is a precise and destructive symbol. Across the country, police units are under scrutiny, or are avoiding it, for their use of deadly force on civilians, and the fairness with which they use it on white- and non-white subjects. Across the country, Latino groups in particular are on the alert for raids and excesses by newly energized local law-enforcement agencies and federal immigration officials. At just this moment, Donald Trump has chosen to pardon a man convicted of violations on both fronts: The units he commanded were needlessly violent and abusive toward civilians, and they based too many of their decisions about the use of force on the subject’s race.

Of course that also serves to explain why Trump did it – it’s not just that Arpaio’s his buddy-in-racism and he wanted to help him because he’s such a fantastic guy – it’s also because Arpaio’s his buddy in racism, and he loves that. He pardoned him not despite the racism but very much because of it.

The longer-lasting problem is that the nation is wrestling once again with its founding injustice: the unequal application of of state power, on differential racial grounds. That was the essential logic of slavery, and after it of Jim Crow and legalized segregation. Joe Arpaio is a symbol of using state power to maintain racial advantages and disadvantages. If you think this is overstated, please read the New Times account and the many references it links to, or this report on Judge Snow’s findings.

I don’t think it’s overstated. I wish I could; I wish I had reason to. I wish this were not happening.

And at this moment, in these circumstances, this is the man Donald Trump has chosen to praise, and to protect. The symbolism is exactly as clear as if Lyndon Johnson had gone out of his way in the 1960s to pardon Southern sheriffs or mayors who were intimidating civil-rights protestors. But of course Lyndon Johnson didn’t do that.

He did the other thing.

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