Sheriff Joe Arpaio's circus came to ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism Monday night, only to be cut short by the sounds of a pro-immigrant ditty, sung to the tune of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.
The evening was filled with protest signs, serious journalism, civil disobedience, and Arpaio wearing funny hats. It was an ironic enterprise to begin with: Arizona's -- and perhaps America's -- number one enemy of freedom of speech, being interviewed by Cronkite School profs as part of a "First Amendment Forum." This, in front of more than 200 ASU students.
In the end, almost everyone got something, even if it wasn't entirely what they wanted. Arpaio got to appear at a distinguished forum at his daughter's alma mater. The three journalism dons got to nail Arpaio with some tough questions, proving their mettle and impressing me in the process by not punking out. (Sorry I ever doubted you guys.) And the activists got to end the event by singing their take on Freddie Mercury's rock classic about 45 minutes into what had been billed as an hour-long format.
The following are some of the lyrics sung by about a half-dozen warblers, lyrics that ultimately caused both the esteemed journalists and Arpaio to rise from their seats and call it a day. Play the Queen song in your head as you read:
Is this legitimate? Is this atrocity? Caught up in politics. No sense of reality. Open your eyes. Look down to the south and see...The border stops brown folks, they cannot cross the line. But its easy come, easy go, for the rich, n' their cargo. Anyway the migrants flow, doesn't really matter to me..To me...
Now jump to the big finish, double-time:
So you think you can jail me and spit in my eye. So you think you can hate me and leave me to die. Oh Arpeeo-cant do this to me Arpeeo. Just gotta get out-just gotta get out of Tent City. Media only matters, Anyone can see. Attention only matters. Ego only matters to he...
The lyrics were proffered to me by the lyricist, a lass who would only give her name as "Stacy." And what did Stacy have to say to those inside, students and teachers both, who were ticked at the stunt?
"People are criminalized," she explained. "They are illegal because they are intentionally criminalized. Arpaio gets plenty of airtime. And this point of view does not."
Stacy told me that the protesters were ASU students, and that she herself was a recent graduate. Only the press and students could get into the second floor lecture area of the school. Everyone else watched from a big screen TV outside.
"Honestly, I didn't think we'd get through the entire song," she said. "I thought they would kick us out immediately. But we were able to finish it. It had to have been no more than four minutes. I didn't expect Arpaio to decide to leave the stage. But I wasn't sorry he left the stage."
Stacy claimed the intention had not been to stop the event, just interrupt it with song. Her lyrical attack on Arpaio left the hundred or more activists outside on the plaza before the Cronkite School building giddy with victory.
Earlier, a tin pot-banging, placard-waving, unkempt crew stormed the Winter Palace, er, I mean, the Cronkite School lobby, where a band named the Haymarket Squares sang anti-Joe ballads and contemplated going for the elevators. Ultimately, no one did. But neither the school's security nor the Phoenix cops moved to eject them from the lobby. They ejected themselves, according to witnesses.
Upstairs, as the crowd cleared, there was much gnashing of teeth, and not without some cause. The panel of three -- journalism profs Rick Rodriguez, Susan Green, and Steve Elliott -- had brought up many of the issues I was concerned about: The selective exclusion of journalists from the sheriff's press conferences; the arrests of Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey and VVM CEO Jim Larkin; the threats toward reporters who didn't toe the Joe line; the lawsuits over public records, and so on.
In fact, much of the questioning was admirable. Rodriguez, former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee laid into Arpaio from jump, recounting Arpaio's battles with the press and his bullying of same.
Arpaio tried to buffalo Rodriguez with some of his pat responses.
"People call me a publicity hound," huffed Joe. "By the way, you invited me...Is that correct? They invite me, so I'm the elected sheriff. I have to get to the people that I serve. One way of doing that is not running a CIA operation. I have an open door policy. All of you can come through the tents, do what you want."
I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "Yeah, as prisoners, Joe."
Rodriguez was having none of it, and asked Joe about the threats by deputies to arrest reporters.
"What do you mean threaten to arrest [a reporter]?" asked Arpaio, rhetorically. "We're an equal opportunity law enforcement agency. We arrest anybody who violated the law, whether they're a journalist or whatever. There's no discrimination with my office. That's evidenced by thousands of arrests that we've made."
Susan Green, Cronkite News Service's Broadcast Director, hammered Arpaio again and again on his refusal to allow the reporters he doesn't like into media events, pointing out that his "open door" was shut to some.
"You're talking about one or two [reporters] out of hundreds of thousands," said Joe, who went on to boast that he'd done anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 interviews over the years. The couple that were kept out, he alleged, might be dangerous.
"I think there may be a reason for [excluding them]," Joe offered. "Security reasons. There may be some -- very few, a couple, two or three there -- that use the press conference to sandbag me...to disrupt the press conference where the other media are concerned because they want to stick to the reason I had the press conference."
Steve Elliott, digital news director for CNS, questioned why the West Valley View had to sue to obtain access to the MCSO's press releases. Did the MCSO act properly in that case?
"We did appeal that," replied Arpaio. "We probably never should have appealed that. But we did improve our relationship with that paper."
And now the press releases are online, Joe informed them. So what's the big deal?
Rodriguez pressed Joe on the 2007 arrests of Lacey and Larkin, the botched investigation of New Times, the grand jury, the special prosecutor.
"When I was the executive editor of the Sacramento Bee for many years," offered Rodriguez, "we quite often reported on secret grand jury testimony, and I'm sure many of my colleagues in Arizona have done the same. But I was never threatened with arrest, let alone arrested. My question is this, in retrospect, were the arrests the correct police action? Would you do it again in the same situation, and was this a mistake?"
Arpaio played D, with Chief Deputy David Hendershott glowering from the front row of the audience.
"The point is, [Lacey and Larkin] did release grand jury [information]," insisted Joe, "and I presume that's a violation of the law. They did put my home address on the Web, which is a violation, a felony, put me and my family in danger...But that's not the issue. The issue is that my Chief Deputy Dave Hendershott made a decision to put those two people under arrest. We have the probable cause, we have the right to do that. You say that [releasing grand jury info is] only a misdemeanor. I will say this, that 67 percent of people in our jail today...are misdemeanors. It's not unusual to put people under arrest for a misdemeanor. "
Elliott later produced a public doc he said he'd located online "in 30 seconds," which had Arpaio's home address on it. Why hadn't Joe gotten the info redacted?
Arpaio said he'd tried. (If so, he didn't try very hard.) Then he admitted there might have been some "slipperage" on his address getting out into the public domain. (Slipperage?)
Green inquired about the infamous subpoena to New Times, asking for IP addresses on all of New Times' online readers, among other personal information. Wasn't that gross invasion of privacy?
"I'm not going to comment," responded Joe. "There's some litigation pending. However, sometimes in law enforcement or in journalism, sometimes we reevaluate situations...This is a learning process. I'm not saying we did anything wrong..."
At one point, Arpaio and Rodriguez got into it over a question Rodriguez posed dealing with Arpaio's abuses of power, his retaliation against critics, and his refusal to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice over its investigation into his office. Arpaio accused Rodriguez of getting his question from CBS 5 News, which has recently done some take-no-prisoners pieces on Arpaio. Rodriguez vigorously denied the suggestion.
"I thought I saw that on Channel 5..." said Joe.
"Maybe you did," shot back Rodriguez. "We're not allowed to follow up on media questions?"
"Well listen," Arpaio countered, "We have a lawsuit pending [against them]."
A lawsuit pending against Channel 5? For what, reporting the facts? Wonder how far that legal action will get, and how much it will cost taxpayers? Both CBS 5 reporter Morgan Loew and producer Gilbert Zermeno were in attendance. Neither had heard of any such lawsuit against their station.
Not long after this, the singing began. Joe seemed to revel in it. First he donned a furry U of A Wildcats cap, then a plainer ASU one. The panel rose and Joe was escorted out the door with his security and his sycophants. Among the latter: His top PR flack Lisa Allen and the co-author of Arpaio's two books, Len Sherman.
Arpaio took a moment before amscraying to wonder if he and I'd ever do lunch, off the record, of course. Nah, Joe. Only if I have my tape recorder in hand, and I'm free to publish every word.
I spoke briefly to Cronkite School Dean Christopher Callahan about the disruption, which he naturally abhorred. But, I wondered, wasn't it to be expected? What if ASU had invited President Lyndon Johnson's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to speak during the height of the Vietnam War? Wouldn't he have anticipated civil disobedience, and far more upheaval?
"Quite frankly," he said, "if the Defense Secretary came in to give a speech during the Vietnam War, I think it would be protested intensely. Do I think that if you had a group of journalists grilling Secretary McNamara on Vietnam policies, do I think that would be protested? Honestly, no."
I'll admit, as I'm sure many will point out to me, the analogy is by no means precise. The carnage of Vietnam is not parallel to the sufferings of the undocumented here in Ari-bama. But the treatment of the undocumented is a moral issue that requires a response, and civil disobedience is a response, a disobedient response.
Like Iraq War protesters shouting during a congressional hearing, or someone lifting an anti-war banner during a White House event, such actions are part of the vim and vigor of a free society. The protesters will be roundly condemned by many locally, I have no doubt. But we're not talking about the Red Army Faction here, folks, just some songsters. And fifteen minutes less of Arpaio dodging tough queries isn't that much of a loss. Sheesh, the guy does it practically every day.