Sheriff Joe received a little support today from an unlikely source, the Rev. Oscar Tillman, President of the Maricopa County branch of the NAACP.
I contacted Rev. Tillman to ask his opinion of a half-page ad that ran in the Arizona Republic yesterday comparing Arpaio to Birmingham, Alabama's infamous public safety commissioner Bull Connor, who battled civil rights protesters with water hoses and attack dogs back in the early '60s.
Not that Arpaio's enlisted German shepherds and water cannons against those he's trying to keep in check -- you know, like Maricopa County's Latino community. Rather, Arpaio employs indiscriminate, anti-Hispanic sweeps -- 13 to date. For those who individually oppose him, there's the threat of arrest on trumped up charges, and other sorts of harassment. This is why the U.S. Justice Department, the FBI and now a federal grand jury are investigating the sheriff.
The ad, paid for by an anti-racist group out of Chicago called Center for New Community, and signed by 60 African American leaders, juxtaposed photos of Connor and Arpaio with the header, "The More Things Change...The More They Stay the Same." The ad's content noted some of Arpaio's more egregious statements and abuses, such as racial profiling, marching 200 Mexicans to a segregated part of Tent City, saying it's "an honor" to be called KKK, and so on. You can examine the ad in detail, here.
Rev. Tillman took exception to the ad, observing that those signing were out-of-towners, and disagreeing with the tenor of the statements therein.
"Whenever you start labeling people...that doesn't get us anywhere," said Tillman. "These people they are talking about - [County Attorney] Andrew Thomas, and in this particular article only about the sheriff, they are elected people. Dr. Martin Luther King pointed out to us a long time ago, the power of the ballot is more than any rhetorical matters that we can do."
He also belittled the comparison, pointing out that many are unfamiliar with who Bull Connor was and what he represented.
"Half the people today don't even know what they're talking about," Tillman stated of the Connor reference."If you go to ASU right now or go out to that demonstration they're having Saturday afternoon...ask half of the people who was Bull Connor. They won't know."
But that doesn't mean the comparison isn't apt, argue others. The Rev. Kazi Joshua, chair of the Center for New Community and the chief signatory of the ad, defended the analogy, while admitting that -- like all such analogies -- it offers a far from a perfect parallel.
"The analogy between Bull Connor and Arpaio would be that Bull Connor was simply seeing himself as enforcing law and order," explained Rev. Joshua. "He was trying to keep Birmingham white all the way, and he saw [the civil rights demonstrators] as trying to disturb the peace.
"The sum total of Joe Arpaio's actions means that people are treated with less dignity than all human beings should be irrespective of their status as it relates to the law. Martin Luther King said that an injustice against one is an injustice against all. That is the point we're making."
Joshua maintained that there has been an effort on the part of the anti-immigration crowd "to pit African Americans against people who are coming to this country to work." And I agree. This is why the ad was groundbreaking in many ways. Having scores of African Americans show solidarity with Latinos and all Arizonans fighting Arpaio is significant, nearly as significant as the Rev. Al Sharpton's visit to Phoenix's Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church last year where he preached unity before a mixed audience of African Americans, Latinos, Anglos and others.
"Are the civil rights movement and the struggle for just immigration identical?" Joshua asked, rhetorically. "Of course they are not identical because of the different history of how African Americans came in [to the country] and what was at stake in their struggle. But we think there are analogies around the dignity and respect for treatment of persons."
Certainly, Rev. Tillman has a point about the ballot box, which was barred to most African Americans in the South in Bull Connor's time. But Bull Connor was an elected official, and the majority of the electorate sided with him, just as they now side with Joe. When democracy backs injustice, then we all have a problem.
For his part, Tillman seemed satisfied with his dealings with the MCSO, stating that whenever he had a concern regarding a detainee, the NAACP has gotten a response "direct from the sheriff's office." He also claimed that Andrew Thomas and Joe Arpaio had never resorted name-calling.
To which I'd reply that they don't have to, as they can just have anyone they want arrested. Although, there are Arpaio's statements about Mexican migrants being "dirty" and carriers of disease.
What about the allegations of racial profiling? The MCSO's indiscriminate targeting of Latinos? The 13 sweeps to date?
"You have the U.S. Department of Justice here," Tillman observed. "Many people begged them to get here. Many people went to Washington...asking them to be here. Now they're here. Either let them do their jobs or we're going to continue to be divisive."
Problem is, the squeaky cabinet usually gets the WD40. And if African Americans here and elsewhere assist in bringing change to Maricopa County, I can't help but see this as a positive. As for the comparison to Bull Connor, it's one that's being made by a variety of individuals, from Rev. Sharpton to activists in Houston who slyly gave Arpaio the "2009 Bull Connor Award" after his recent address to couple of extremist groups down there.
Rev. Joshua cited Dr. King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which argued for direct, nonviolent action in response to a call from Alabama clergy to confine his fight against segregation to working within the existing system. King was the out-of-towner then, with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he lead headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Though he'd been a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, many saw him as an outside agitator.
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"Two-hundred years from now," asked Joshua,"will people say, what kinds of people stood by while folks were dehumanized and mistreated? What we are saying is that we do not want to be part of that tradition. Martin Luther King said not just bad people do all of these bad things, rather it is because good people, when bad things are happening choose to remain silent. We are saying no, we aren't going to be silent."
I have the deapest respect for Rev. Tillman, but on the issue of Arpaio and this statement by the Center for New Community, we disagree. As far as I'm concerned, the ad is suitable for framing...