The practice of presidential pardons has never been transparent or without a certain mix of politics, nepotism, and shadiness.
And yet President Trump’s eleventh hour decision to pardon Arizona’s notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio works really hard to defy the logic of presidential pardon history.
It is nepotistic and shady and it is relatively transparent. This pardon simply reaffirms the fact that the President of the United States embraces bigotry. Maybe more significant here is that the President is signaling both his support for anti-immigrant racism in its most pernicious form and his willingness to pardon those associated with him who have been found guilty by a court of law.
The Trump administration has yet to properly deal with the backlash and fallout from the president’s tepid rejection of the white supremacist hatred on full display in Charlottesville this summer.
His decision to pardon Arpaio now, only weeks after the court found him guilty of defying court orders to end his racial profiling practices (and with little explanation) is bold, but it is not controversial.
As a decision, it is completely consistent with this president’s affinity for discrimination and racial hatred. Arpaio is a racist thug who relished the inhumane conditions of his “tent city,” aggressively terrorized Mexican Americans inside and outside of his jails; and selectively enforced the law. To many people in the Phoenix AZ community he is a menace who used his position as a sheriff to terrorize brown people within his jurisdiction. To President “build-the-wall” he is a hero.
Mr. Arpaio ingratiated himself to Donald Trump early on as one of the first “national” figures to endorse his “I-hate-Obama” birtherism campaign. In last week’s campaign rally in AZ, Pres. Trump hinted at the pardon and suggested that Arpaio was convicted for “doing his job.” In doing his job, Sheriff Arpaio’s unit amassed over ten thousand lawsuits totaling over 100 million dollars in litigation and settlement fees.
Yes, racism is expensive, and systemic racism is very expensive. But the cost in lives lost under Sheriff Arpaio’s watch is what is most painful and still painfully unclear. Follow the Phoenix New Times for their deep reporting on Arpaio’s tenure as sheriff and note well that Arpaio’s jail outstripped the largest jails in this nation for its inmate suicide rate.
Moreover, an estimated 150 inmates died while in Arpaio’s custody with little or no explanation. And the reason why that number is an estimate is because there is no transparency in the administrative oversight of Sheriff Arpaio’s infamous tenure.
Mr. Arpaio represents just about everything that is wrong with law enforcement and our criminal justice system. He is racist and he delights in his abuse of power as well as his ability to apply his racist ideologies to and through our criminal justice system. He is the paragon of the “bad apple” that so many defenders of our criminal justice system claim are few and far between. A
rpaio’s defenders and his presidential pardoner know implicitly that the former Sheriff’s practices as an officer of the law mirror and echo the very same racist ideologies so prominently on display in the Charlottesville incident.
His time as Sheriff and the president’s elevation of him to above-the-law status are the clearest indicators of the ways that white supremacy continues to be a feature of our entire criminal justice system.
Dr. James Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University, and is a contributor of MSNBC. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson.