From the broiler of 'Bama to the desert heat of Ari-bama, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Dr. Heidi Beirich descended on the offices of Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon Wednesday and blasted Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for his associations with neo-Nazi and nativist individuals and organizations.
Actually, Beirich had a lot to say about the rise of hate here in Sand Land and on the national scene before turning to Sheriff Joe. She cited three reasons for an uptick in extremist violence: the election of America's first black President; the weakened economy; and nativist thunder over illegal immigration from Mexico. She talked about the 19 hate groups the SPLC's identified in Arizona, and the links between neo-Nazis and Arizona minutemen.
Beirich also mentioned Mesa neo-Nazi J.T. Ready and his close relationship with state Senator Russell Pearce, and she discussed the incidents of violence and white supremacist activity that have taken place in Arizona, from the May 30 Arivaca murders of a father and his little girl, allegedly by nativist gun mol Shawna Forde and colleagues in crime, to the recent bond hearing for Daniel Mahon for his alleged involvement in the 2004 mail-bombing of former Scottsdale Diversity and Dialogue Director Don Logan.
But the juicy stuff came when Beirich's PowerPoint presentation alighted on the subject of the local nativist population and Sheriff Joe's pandering to both the nativists and the neo-Nazis. Beirich showed photos from this blog of armed United for a Sovereign America members counterdemonstrating at the recent children's walk to Joe's Wells Fargo offices. Driving home the point of U.S.A.'s virulent racism, she threw up U.S.A.'s prejudiced caricature of President Obama as "Uncle Sambo," and First Lady Michelle Obama in a "mammy" kerchief as Aunt Jemima.
"I think it goes without saying that this is racist material," stated Beirich, shifting to photos of Lynne Stevens and other U.S.A. members. "Here are some of their leaders protesting a children's march the other day. This group is extremely rabid and very supportive of Arpaio, and they're at this event with guns on their hips, a children's event."
In addition, Beirich brought up the infamous snapshot of then-neo-Nazi Thomas Coletto posing with Sheriff Joe from May 2, with other neo-Nazis nearby. (Coletto has since renounced the National Socialist Movement, as regular readers of this blog know.) And she showed a pic of neo-Nazi Elton Hall with a "We Support Sheriff Joe" sign.
"I'll say the same thing I said about Russell Pearce," she noted of Arpaio. "It's very dangerous when mainstream characters hang out with these folks. At the end of the day, this helps them sell their message, because it makes them look as if they're more mainstream than they actually are. It endorses what they're doing. And it empowers them.
"It's really incumbent upon public officials to stay away from individuals who essentially hate Jews, hate Blacks, hate Latinos. These are not people who anyone who is in public life should be spending time with. These are parts of our horrible past, especially the racism, that we've been trying to get over."
Beirich shared something I didn't know: That Joe Arpaio has endorsed a book by ex-Graham County, Arizona Sheriff and far-right nut Richard Mack, who previously co-wrote a book with white supremacist Randy Weaver, he of the fatal 1992 Ruby Ridge shootout, a rallying point for extremists nationwide. Gee, Joe, what's next? Do you plan to host the upcoming neo-Nazi Oi Fest in Tonopah? Burn a cross in Fountain Hills? Micromanage a lynching? Sheesh.
Following Beirich's presentation, I asked her if she thought it was acceptable for Arpaio to address meetings of such organizations as United for a Sovereign America, as he has done in the past, particularly in light of the fact that he's a law official as well as a politician.
"It's completely unacceptable," she replied. "It's inexplicable, actually. You're giving legitimacy to a group you should not be giving legitimacy to. You're giving your imprimatur -- whatever it's worth -- to the group. No politician, no elected official should be talking to these people.
"I don't know what's in Arpaio's head and why he does these things," she continued. "Given his other activities, in terms of raiding immigrant communities, and whatnot, they probably figure he's endorsing their activities. And that's a scary thing."
Because the nativists in U.S.A. might figure they have the license to do certain things?
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"That's the fear you always have, I don't know," she answered. "But these aren't people who are particularly sane. So it's really a crazy thing he's doing."
Crazy like a fox, unfortunately for those of us here in Cactus Country. As I discussed at length in my May cover story, "Ja, Joe," Arpaio's milked anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona to his political benefit, using it to distract attention from his department's many failings on the crime-fighting front, and the corruption that perennially oozes from the MCSO.
In a time where it seems like every other week, some right-wing crazy is popping off in one fashion or another, Arpaio is playing with fire, encouraging the sort of chaos and lawlessness responsible politicians and law enforcement officials are trying to battle. Beirich, for instance, had to be protected while she was here with two bodyguards because of threats on her life by neo-Nazis and others. This is the ugly reality of our benighted patch of desert in this day and age. And our septuagenarian Sheriff is only making the problem worse.
I'll have more on the panel discussion "Elements of Hate" Beirich participated in Wednesday with Phoenix civil rights leaders, law enforcement officers, and targets of hate crimes, coming in a future blog post.