Arpaio On Trial and Our Struggle Continues


This week there’s been national attention on Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County who has been in a court hearing for contempt after his non-compliance with a federal judge’s order prohibiting the Sheriff from detaining people solely for alleged immigration violations. The harm Arpaio inflicted on people of color and poor people are notorious, but for many years went unnoticed. Pan Left took this head on back in 2012 with the release of UNDER ARPAIO.  The documentary highlighted many tragedies by the self-proclaimed toughest Sheriff, but also the courageous fight for justice against Arpaio by people in Phoenix.  Jason Michael Aragón directed the film and offers a reflection on recent events.

Under Arpaio available on YouTube

Back in 2009 I made many trips to Phoenix doing interviews for Under Arpaio and it seemed at the time it was almost impossible to imagine a day where Sheriff Joe Arpaio would be answering to a judge in court.  Not because there wasn’t plenty of reasons for him to face a courtroom, but because the “America’s Toughest Sheriff” persona of Sheriff Joe was at a peak. It was the rise of the worst anti-Mexican hatred we’ve seen in Arizona.  Arpaio had taken center stage in the media as a celebrity expert for immigration issues in the news.  SB1070, Immigration Reform, and ICE collaboration with police were all topics news anchors would look to Arpaio for his so called “expertise”.

Now in 2015, Arpaio faces contempt charges by a Federal Judge this week in a Phoenix courtroom and it seems his invincible persona has left the room as Deputies testify to his guilt and even one of his attorneys quit.  The irony of it all is that this contempt hearing is from a racial profiling lawsuit that resulted in Federal orders to stop Arpaio from enforcing immigration laws at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and he admitted guilt in an attempt to avoid being charged with contempt.  The “immigration expert” of Arizona back then has failed so miserably to remain credible, but then his credibility was never something news media was interested in.

When making Under Arpaio there was so many horrific tales of abuse that were told to us from incredible journalists and brave people affected by Arpaio’s raids and brutal jails that it was always curious to me that the Sheriff was given automatic media time to discuss immigration issues.  As I think back, getting informed about the issue of immigration in mainstream media didn’t seem to be the priority.  Getting ratings requires getting attention and Arpaio had plenty of ammunition for attention with tent jails, massive roundups of migrant workers, and being beloved by Neo Nazis. That made any cable news channel excited.  For me, that was the real tragedy. The story of people victimized by Arpaio’s cruel injustice got lost in the noise of his publicity.  I think that’s what made me spend all those hours driving to Phoenix and collecting those stories. It seemed Arpaio’s voice would always be louder and muffle the chorus of masses of people fed up with him.  To document some of these voices helped me believe that perhaps these stories would not be forgotten.  I hope after the trial people understand the enormous capital and collateral damage of lives it took to get Arpaio just to sit in a courtroom and be charged with contempt.  The lives lost in his jails, rape victims ignored, and families broken by immigration raids will never be given justice by a contempt charge. Let’s hope that this could help bring about true accountability to  abusers of power in this nation… especially those in power with many guns and a live satellite interview.

Jason Michael Aragón is a member and filmmaker with Pan Left Productions since 2005. He is currently the Executive Director for Pan Left. Under Arpaio was the winner of Best of Arizona at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2012


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