Sheriff Joe Arpaio may be a smart man. He has managed to use crime, racism and anti-immigrant policies, many charge, to be reelected to his Maricopa County, Ariz., position repeatedly since 1996. But that doesn't stop human rights activists from outsmarting him.
Lydia Guzman, an advocate for immigrant and civil rights, has started using text messages to warn residents about indiscriminate sweeps by the high-profile Arizona sheriff.
Guzman, director of the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Respect/Respeto, is alerting thousands of people within minutes to the details of the sweeps, which community members contend are an excuse to round up Latinos, including citizens, and immigrants, documented and undocumented.
Guzman said the messages are part of an effort to protect Latinos and others from becoming victims of racial profiling by sheriff's deputies. "Everyone is responsible for sending it out to their own networks, and that is how it spreads like wildfire," Guzman said of the text messages.
One recipient of Guzman's messages, David Hernandez, executive vice president of the Arizona AFL-CIO and lifelong Maricopa County resident, says the text recipients can then go to the neighborhood sweeps and observe.
"I've gone out to observe and make sure they treat people respectfully. I have never witnessed any impeding of a criminal investigation," Hernandez said by phone from Phoenix.
What Hernandez has seen was the sheriff's deputies cross a four-lane street and take a video camera from an observer who was documenting possible evidence of racial profiling.
"The world needs to see what goes on here in Phoenix because what happens in Phoenix can happen anywhere else," Hernandez said.
Deputies have been accused of stopping Latino people, including citizens and legal immigrants, for minor traffic violations to check their immigration status. Just this week, Arpaio gave a nine-hour deposition in a lawsuit against him brought by Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, Jessica Quitugua Rodriguez, David Rodriguez, Velia Meraz and Manuel Nieto, Jr., all of whom allege racial-profiling by the sheriff's office. The suit filed in U.S. District Court charges that deputies searched them without cause or unreasonably detained them between September 2007 and March 2008.
Arpaio is the darling of the ultra-right and Republican Party in Arizona and nationally for his "get-tough" approach. Among his publicity stunts, cloaked in law and order rhetoric, is making prisoners wear pink underwear as a humiliation method. It garnered national media attention and Arpaio then used the publicity to push his book, "Sheriff Joe Arpaio, America's Toughest Sheriff."
Arpaio set up a "Tent City" as an extension of the Maricopa County jail. In a region where temperature can soar well over 100 degrees, temperatures inside the tents have been reported reaching 150 degrees.
He has now turned his attention to supposedly enforcing immigration laws.
In a fashion that has some appeal to the Wild West mindset, he began devising and implementing residential and workplace sweeps throughout the Phoenix area.
Arpaio recently admitted he was not well versed on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or its counterpart in the Arizona Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
Arpaio has conducted 13 sweeps since March 2008, and deputies have arrested 669 people, about half of whom were held on immigration violations, according to The Associated Press.
But activists using various strategies, including lawsuits, recall petitions and street heat have been fighting back. Fast-paced communication technologies, from texting to YouTube are part of the growing coalition's toolbox for justice and decency.
And the more Arpaio's tactics are exposed, it seems, the more people realize what a danger he is to democracy.
Self-described conservative Republican prosecutor Sharon Polk called recent legal battles waged by Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas against county officials "totalitarianism." In a recent letter to the Arizona Republic, Polk wrote, "I am conservative and passionately believe in limited government, not the totalitarianism that is spreading before my eyes."
Hernandez said Arpaio's recent attacks on lawyers and judges in the name of fighting corruption means he has "turned it up a notch."
"What's happening is the sheriff has been targeting community activists, but he turned it up a notch by going after judges and lawyers," he said. A huge turnout of lawyers in downtown Phoenix at a recent rally protested Arpaio's so called investigations.
"The lawyers say that politics should not be involved in administration of the law," Hernandez said.
Hernandez also said more and more judges were ruling against the arbitrary way Arpaio's deputies enforce the law, often targeting critics. Plus, he added, Arpaio "went after The New Time editors, an independent newspaper here, and arrested them at their home." They had done an article on Arpaio's real estate holdings and potential conflict of interest. Arpaio claimed he got death threats, and subpoenaed the bloggers. He wanted their sources, they refused, and he arrested them, Hernandez recounted.
First Arpaio went after immigrants, Hernandez said. Then he went after community activists, journalists, lawyers and now judges. "It's just like history where they went after one group of people who didn't say anything," Hernandez said, referring to the famous anti-Nazi saying credited to Pastor Niemoller, "First they went after the communists..."
Puenteaz, a local activist group that has helped to organize mass demonstrations to call attention to Arpaio and his policies, is organizing a Jan. 16 demonstration in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In their e-mail call, the organization said, "At this time we are making an urgent national call for all peoples concerned and engaged in changing the course of hate in this country to join us Jan. 16. It is time, just like Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement took the streets of Montgomery, Ala., that at that time was the epicenter of hate; we must do the same in Phoenix."
Hernandez said the struggle in Maricopa County is "vested interests vs. social justice, and social justice is not winning." Arpaio's appeal to racism and immigrant-bashing has traction, he said, and people are afraid to speak out because of Arpaio's bullying and intimidation.
Anytime there is an exposé on Arpaio, he turns it around and makes it about "illegal" immigrants, Hernandez said. "You can't have a conversation in Arizona without it turning to immigration. Everything in Arizona is about immigration."
But, he added, "last time I checked Maricopa County is still in the United States, and this country has social justice principles."
We need to "appeal to American principles across the country," he said.