My Mennonite World Review column on Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Below is my July column for the Mennonite World Review. My organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and I did not attend the Mennonite Convention in Phoenix this year to be in solidarity with Latin@ Mennonites who were observing the boycott on Arizona because of its racist immigration laws.

An old sheriff in town
By Kathleen Kern Christian Peacemaker Teams

In May, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow handed down a 142-page ruling that concluded Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s policy of detaining people who looked Latino violated the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In his ruling, Judge Snow noted Arpaio routinely violated federal law and the constitutional rights of Latinos in his county — of which Phoenix is the county seat — and blatantly violated terms of a prior court order that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office stop engaging in immigration-related enforcement operations. It said the sheriff’s office had institutionalized the consideration of race in law enforcement decision-making, tried to hide the discriminatory nature of officers’ actions and showed an overall lack of professionalism in determining whether they could legally do what they wanted in spite of court orders.

Arpaio (in car) and Lombardi

Arpaio (in car) and Lombardi

Those who accuse Arpaio of racial profiling are using a sanitized term for a man who, in 2009, allowed his picture to be taken with neo-Nazi Vito Lombardi and gave the organizers of a neo-Nazi counterdemonstration intelligence on a pro-civil rights march that would be passing them soon.

In 2007, in an interview with Lou Dobbs on CNN, he said a comparison with the Ku Klux Klan was an honor.

Racial profiling is not the only controversy surrounding Arpaio and his office. He has been investigated for unconstitutional jail conditions, improper clearance of cases and failure to investigate sex crimes — especially the molestation of undocumented immigrants’ children, election law violations, targeting political enemies with criminal investigations, misuse of funds, a staged assassination plot and lack of cooperation with the Department of Justice.

Arpaio said he is going to appeal Snow’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which means Maricopa County taxpayers will be spending more money in defense of this man and his policies. Yet, last November, the people of Maricopa County re-elected Arpaio for the fifth time.

I wrote this column before a group of Mennonite Church USA youth from Ohio visited Arpaio with the intention of engaging him in dialogue and instead became used by him as a propaganda tool when he posted their picture with him on the Internet. I understand that the youth went to the meeting without the knowledge or approval of MC USA or the convention planners.

Mennonite Youth from Phoenix Convention with Joe Arpaio (center)

But Arpaio and the laws in Arizona that make Latino Mennonites unsafe there are why Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church, or IMH) asked that the church observe a boycott of Arizona. I truly believe convention organizers made the decision to hold the convention there prayerfully. I believe the decision wasn’t easy. I know we can point at Arpaio and say, “We’re not like him” and dismiss him as a bully and a clown.

But the fact is, the convention was in an Arizona county that re-elected him five times, and most attendees will never have to worry about the consequences of being visible there.

They chose to leave their Mennonite brothers and sisters who would be targeted by Arpaio and his deputies behind. And they ended up with a photo of their (mostly white) youth smiling with one of the most outspokenly racist sheriffs in the U.S. (For a more detailed analysis of this event, see this reflection by Marty Troyer) I hope that some day true reconciliation between IMH and MCUSA for that decision will occur — the sort of reconciliation that will prevent other decisions like it in the future. But I and other Mennonite brothers and sisters like me will always remember why we did not go to Phoenix.

Kathleen Kern, of Rochester, N.Y., serves with Christian Peacemaker Teams.