Today the Reverend Al Sharpton achieved what no one else has achieved before in Arizona's civil rights struggle for the undocumented: the bringing together of African Americans and Latinos on the issues of racial profiling, immigration reform and the 287(g) program.
After meeting with those who've suffered racial profiling at the hands of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies, Sharpton addressed a crowd of several hundred at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, near downtown Phoenix. The audience included equal numbers of African Americans and Hispanic religious and community leaders. And the perceived schism between brown and black was very much on the Reverend's mind.
"Let me deal with the 800 pound gorilla in the room," Sharpton said at one point in his address. "This whole fight, this whole tension between the African American and Latino communities, we must heal. And we must understand that we are not each other's problem, we are each other's solution.
"Those that discriminate against Blacks, would discriminate against Latinos," continued Sharpton to enthusiastic applause. "Those that discriminate against Latinos would discriminate against Blacks. You cannot let them play the crab in the barrel game on you, where you feel you've got to grab down the Latino to get up, or grab down the Black to get up. The way for the crabs in the barrel to get up is to move the lid off the barrel, so there's enough room for all of us to get up."
(You can listen to an MP3 of Sharpton's entire speech at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church,
True to the venue, Sharpton's address took on the tenor of a revival meeting. He denounced the misuse of the 287(g) program, the indiscriminate use of race by police, the unequal application of laws, and the spread of fear in the Latino community. He mentioned death threats he had received because of his decision to come to Arizona, necessitating extra security for his presence. And he promised that he would not be deterred.
"Let me make this clear," he told the crowd. "We are not here about Sheriff Joe, as much as we are here about Citizen Jose. I would not fly all the way across country to engage in the personality of Sheriff Joe. But I would fly anywhere to protect the rights of Citizen Jose or Citizen Jamal."
The Reverend also promised a series of "freedom rides" for Maricopa County, calling on the memory of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s,who rode on interstate buses to test a U.S. Supreme Court order desegregating terminals for the bus routes.
"What we need to do is start us some freedom rides in this county," Sharpton suggested. "Where we all start coming out of here riding in these cars, and filming [video] to turn over to the federal government. Sheriff's deputies are not sure who they're gonna stop. They might stop a car with me in it."
In fact, that's something groups like Puente and CopWatch do now. But to have outside organizations like Sharpton's National Action Network involved is a tantalizing prospect. The effect of these groups following MCSO sweeps as they do is to alleviate some of the harassment going on. Sharpton's activism could make such anti-racial-profiling freedom rides an even more powerful tool to curtail arrests of the undocumented.
The speech ended with a standing ovation, and then Sharpton was off. First to a mini-press conference of all but seven minutes, where he was asked what he expected of his meeting with Arpaio later in the day.
"I have no idea," he said. "I don't know. I would be prejudging him...and I'm here to fight prejudice, not engage in it."
Another reporter asked what Sharpton would say to those who observe that both he and the sheriff share a common love of publicity.
"I would say they are probably right," he replied, "But we get publicity for different reasons. I try to put publicity on the issues of civil rights. And if my coming can help [ACORN CEO] Bertha Lewis and [Maricopa County Supervisor] Mary Rose Wilcox and others put light on the abuses of [the 287(g) program], then please call me a publicity hound."
Then Sharpton jumped in a black SUV and made his way to Supervisor Wilcox's El Portal restaurant, where he did a live, three hour radio show, seated beneath a portrait of Cesar Chavez. An audience of about 100 or so packed Wilcox's restaurant to watch as Sharpton interviewed Wilcox, ACORN's Bertha Lewis and Julio Mora, the 19 year-old American citizen who was unlawfully detained and zip-tied along with his legal resident dad during the MCSO's raid on HMI Landscaping in February of this year. (You may recall that Mora was a star witness during the House Judiciary Committee hearings on 287(g) in April.)
Wilcox told Sharpton about Arpaio's Guadalupe sweep from last year, and Sharpton was surprised to hear about how Arpaio had essentially shut down this square-mile town of Yaqui Indians and Mexican-Americans, almost all of whom are citizens. Guadalupe activist Andrew Sanchez was also present, and during the Q & A part of the program, he told Sharpton about the fear and intimidation the entire town felt as Arpaio's goons ravaged it last April.
As I was standing next to the place where Sharpton was sitting before his microphone, I took the opportunity to chat him up during the radio show's commercial breaks. I told him about Arpaio's abuses of power, and how he was even investigating the state's Attorney General as an intimidation tactic. Sharpton asked how Arpaio kept getting elected, and I explained about the geriatric snow birds in Sun City, of the County's overwhelming racism towards Hispanics, and how Arpaio's tough-on-crime dogma and newfound love of immigration enforcement appealed to many county residents.
I asked him if he was concerned that, as his meeting with Arpaio was supposed to be behind closed doors, Arpaio would try to twist it into some sort of PR win. And he conceded that Arpaio would likely attempt this.
"But we're both going to be on Lou Dobbs tonight," he told me, explaining that this fact would make it less likely that Arpaio would be able to spin the outcome of what happened behind closed doors.
When I'd arrived at El Portal after driving there from Pilgrim Rest, there were a handful of nativist protesters on the other side of the street, mostly the usual suspects, such as Barb Heller, the United for a Sovereign America member who has boasted of her contacts with the MCSO, and whom I mentioned in my recent cover story, "Ja, Joe!" With the nativists was at least one neo-Nazi, Harry Hughes, whom I also discussed in the same cover story. The nativists didn't seem to mind him being there on their side, and one of them even walked up and hugged him while I was taking pics.
So much for the nativists attempting to stay aloof from white supremacists.
As soon as Sharpton's radio show was over around 1 p.m., he jumped back in his black SUV and was on to the Wells Fargo Building, where Arpaio keeps two floors of pricey, executive suites. The nativists, and assorted, armed, white supremacist types had already moved on to Wells Fargo, it seemed. And I followed suit and headed for Wells Fargo Plaza, where activists from both sides of the immigration debate had assembled.
For a while, both the pro and anti-immigrant sides were mixing and intermingling peacefully. But eventually there were some minor, verbal confrontations, and the Phoenix police formed a cordon of over 30 officers to keep the two sides separated. Sharpton entered the building around 1:30 p.m., and exited at 2:10 p.m. He went straight to the elevator for the garage, surrounded by aides and bodyguards, without saying anything to the press or the demonstrators.
I hopped in my car and onto the 51 freeway as fast as I could so I could make it home in time to see the verbal cage fight between Sharpton and the Sheriff on CNN. Needless to say, Sharpton easily outperformed and out-debated Arpaio, who seemed tired and cranky by contrast to the Reverend, who appeared alert and on his game.
Indeed, the Reverend was so reasonable by comparison to Arpaio, whose favorite word for the evening was "garbage," that even TV nativist Lou Dobbs seemed to be leaning towards Sharpton. Sharpton spoke of the "hundreds of people coming forth" with stories of racial profiling and civil rights abuses. He said he asked the Sheriff for data on those he arrests that might prove or disprove allegations of racial profiling. But the MCSO doesn't keep such data, the sheriff told him. (Interestingly, Arizona's Department of Public Safety does keep such information on stops they make because of a successful ACLU lawsuit.)
Arpaio scoffed that Sharpton was just listening to "a small group of people," the "one or two [who] testified in congress." The sheriff insisted the Justice Department probe was based on "politics," and mentioned that the MCSO had asked the DOJ to investigate itself, which sparked the following exchange.
SHARPTON: Well, you know, I think that's a new curve I haven't heard, to ask the Justice Department to investigate the Justice Department.
ARPAIO: That's right.
SHARPTON: While the Justice Department investigates the Justice Department, somebody needs to explain [why] many of these citizens are saying this, if there's no data there, then how does the sheriff defend himself?
And then how do we collectively look at how the immigration laws should protect citizens? You have an indigenous community of Indians who say their town has been raided. These people are either having a mass hallucination in this county, or we have a problem that we need to get beyond the name calling and try to protect people's civil rights.
ARPAIO: We haven't invaded any Indian reservations. You are [sic] go on and on.
SHARPTON: I said a community.
ARPAIO: No, that's garbage, and you know it, Al. We discussed that. We go into white neighborhoods. I have been accused of everything. It is all garbage. And I'm going to tell you something, it's all going to come out in the wash. Believe me. Stay tuned.
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Apparently, Arpaio is unaware of the fact that Guadalupe is half Yaqui Indian. Indeed, the original 40 acres of Guadalupe was given to the Yaqui Indians by President Woodrow Wilson. But maybe if someone had told Joe that, the MCSO would not have invaded the town last year looking for illegal aliens.
Both Sharpton and Arpaio spoke to Dobbs from Phoenix, and it was an exhilarating wrap-up to an exhilarating day. Keeping up with Sharpton ain't easy. The guy has the energy of a man half his age. If we could borrow Sharpton 24-7 for about six months, I think Arpaio'd be begging for mercy.
As it is, if Sharpton remains engaged in Phoenix's Arpaio problem, if he participates in "freedom rides," and continues to put the national spotlight on Arpaio, it may motivate the Obama administration to pull the sheriff's 287(g) authority, and perhaps even sue him and force him to enter into a consent decree concerning his racial profiling ways. Phoenix's pro-immigrant community got a taste of Al Sharpton today. And it left 'em wanting more.
I should also mention that it was Bertha Lewis and ACORN who got Arpaio to come to Phoenix, the Birmingham, Alabama of the 21st Century. They deserve a great deal of credit for the success of today's events.