The internet world is abuzz with the Department of Homeland Security cutting off Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office access to 287g and S-Comm, agreements which enable them to work as an arm of the federal immigration system. Arpaio and his deputies are notorious for misconduct, racial profiling, excessive force, corruption, horrific treatment of incarcerated people, retaliation against those who speak out against them, and aggressive raids that sweep thousands of undocumented folks into the immigration system dragnet. Janet Napolitano (Obama’s hand-picked head of DHS who has supervised over 400,000 deportations in the last year) says that the reason DHS is finally doing anything to hold Arpaio to the barest of standards is that the Department of Justice just released a report denouncing civil rights violations perpetrated by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio, including “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States.” As the headline of this Colorlines article aptly puts it: “DOJ confirms Joe Arpaio is a Racist Sheriff.” In this same week, his deputies have beaten and tased a man held in their jail to death. Some say it’s bad timing, others that it is just another signifier of the culture of abuse and brutality that pervades the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio.
I feel honored and humbled and amazed and inspired by all those who have worked and fought so hard for what the National Day Laborer’s Network is aptly calling “A People’s Victory.” All the hidden and not-so-hidden acts of resistance that have contributed to this small but notable victory against the repressive monster of a system that Arpaio represents. This resistance has taken many forms: by living and caring for each other, by defending communities and supporting each other, by educating those of us not immediately directly impacted by deportation and incarceration, by organizing and speaking out and bearing witness and shouting truth to power. There are so many ways that so many different people have created this moment, by the daily practice of living and surviving and by the more public acts of organizing and denouncing and marching against all that threatens our communities.
The struggle to get Arpaio out, which will have huge real impacts on people’s lives and an important symbolic rippling, is far from over. The Puente Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization in Phoenix that has been a huge part of leading the fight against Arpaio, is now calling for an end to all cooperation and all ICE Access agreements with Arpaio, criminal charges against Arpaio, and the shut-down of Tent City. Yes, sometimes we win a little bit and there is so much more to win. The way is led by those most impacted by Arpaio’s reign of terror and the rest of us would do well to join the struggle that is turning the tide towards justice and collective liberation, a world that works for all of us.
In addition to his horrific treatment of people he’s locked up and his racist terrorizing of undocumented people, Arpaio has been getting tons of media attention recently for a related, but different violation of human rights: between 2005 and 2007, his deputies either didn’t investigate or barely investigated over 400 sexual assault reports, many of which involved children and/or undocumented people. It’s a travesty and tragedy and unfortunately completely in line with Arpaio’s upholding and extending of systems of domination, power, and control that feed him and he feeds. It’s also extremely common for police departments to ignore reports of sexual violence: we live in patriarchal rape culture that in so many subtle and overt ways deems sexual violence acceptable.
When sexual violence is reported to the police, it should be investigated: it seems so basic, but it’s unfortunately not to the MCSO or to other police departments, invested as they are in maintaining the power dynamics of the world as they are. It is such an act of bravery for a survivor to report a sexual assault and it is often the only the option for folks to begin to achieve some kind of safety, to tell their story and make the intimate horror they’ve experienced public and seen. Most sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the survivor, and therefore any reporting or going public with the story can lead to severe consequences, including loss of family emotional or financial support, loss of immigration status, more abuse, isolation, alienation, etc.
But all the attention to this brings up lots of questions about safety and responses to sexual violence: because we know that most acts of sexual violence go unreported, because we know that the police (not here, not anywhere) never have oppressed people’s best interests in mind, because really, even an adequate and appropriate investigation into a sexual assault is unlikely to keep a survivor safe, or to center their needs and desires, or to hold the perpetrator accountable in a way that means they will never assault someone again and transform into someone who is also struggling against the interlocking systems of oppression that allow sexual violence to happen.
When we see the ways that OF COURSE Arpaio and his deputies didn’t investigate sexual assaults because that would be undermining the power and control that they thrive on, as well as the fact that any Sheriff’s Office is a poor solution to the epidemic of sexual violence and culture of rape (1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted during their life), we can honor the further silencing around sexual violence that occurred due to Arpaio’s misconduct and also recognize what our work is moving forward.
The brilliant Opal Tometi recently pointed out how much Arpaio has stolen the definition of “toughness,” with his identity as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He claims it with pride to mean brutality and injustice, racism and violence. When I think of toughness, I think of survivors. I think of communities in resistance, together fighting all of what Arpaio does and represents. I think of the courage it takes to keep living after facing violence that has torn you down, physically and emotionally and spiritually. I think of survivors speaking out and knowing we deserve the justice and safety we are fighting for. I think of speaking truth to power, even when that same power has pushed us into the most hidden and trembling corners of ourselves. I think of the small part inside myself that, on some days, is tough, as I learn to be in survivor community, standing strong and powerful against the interlocking systems of oppression which depend on and enable violence, including sexual violence, as a way of keeping us silent and chained. I think of toughness as the world we are breaking open, the one we are building, the one in which we can all be well and together and our best selves, the one we move a little closer towards with each small victory, the hidden ones and and the not-so-hidden.
So at this moment, when some silence is being broken around the prevalence of sexual assault, around the systemic reasons why the system of police and policing will never end sexual violence, we also have an opportunity to break the silence about responses. We can break the silence about what would truly end sexual violence for all people, about how we can turn to each other and build responses and communities that do not rely on the police as the only way to keep us safe, knowing that for most of us, that is something they can never do.
We are at the moment when we get to dream and vision and plan and enact alternatives to Arpaio. This doesn’t mean 50 federal immigration officials being sent to Maricopa County to continue the violent, racist work of deportation that Arpaio is being cut off from. This means abolition, in all the senses of the word: ending detention, deportation, incarceration, the Prison Industrial Complex, rape culture, and all its tentacles that rip communities apart. It means communities coming together to fight sexual violence and denouncing any violence as unacceptable. It means self-defense and community-defense, learning how to feel at home in our own bodies and that we are worth protecting. Abolition also means accountability: it means growing resilient communities that can respond to intimate violence and sexual violence in ways that do not rely on oppressive systems that also perpetrate violence. It means learning from all the hard work that has been done to imagine what a world without sexual violence, without any violence, would look like, and beginning to enact that, every day, growing the world we need alongside the struggle to tear down the one we need to end.
If you are in Phoenix, come join the Puente Movement on Thursday December 22 at 4 pm in Cesar Chavez Plaza to hold vigil for the 432 survivors who were ignored by Arpaio and the system he upholds. Together we bring Arpaio down, and together we build alternatives to Arpaio. Jen Cross, from Writing Ourselves Whole, writes: “ for those who can, we also have to put our bodies in the place, on the ground, together, linking arms, raising voices, physically manifesting our resistance. For those who can and wish to, this is deep self care. We give ourselves the bodily experience of resistance together, of revolution, we allow our bodies the memory of solidarity, we give our hearts that message: we are not alone in this struggle. Look, look: we are not alone.”
We are tough. We are resilient. We build a new world with each breath we take.