PHOENIX - Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton and ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis jumped into the fray Tuesday, threatening to bring their vast national networks to march in the streets of Phoenix if Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), does not resign immediately.
In a national press event held via teleconference, civil rights leaders railed about Arpaio's immigration enforcement tactics, charging that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) engages in racial profiling, police brutality, and human rights violations. Speakers included Sharpton, Lewis, NAACP leaders, and other well-known civil rights activists.
Sharpton and Lewis vowed to come to Arizona personally if Arpaio does not resign immediately. Arpaio called a press conference in response and told local media that a small group of vocal opponents is trying to intimidate him by publicly calling him and his officers racists.
Arpaio seemed not to know Al Sharpton, saying, "What is his name? Sharpton? He wants me to resign? Have I got news for him. He can stick that in his pipe and smoke it."
Arpaio went on to say that Sharpton is "living in a fantasyland," adding, "I will never resign."
Sharpton's press event comes on the heels of an investigation of MCSO by the DOJ for alleged civil rights violations, primarily racial profiling. Last week local leaders testified before a Congressional committee about the 287(g) immigration enforcement program in which MCSO participates.
According to a statement from Arpaio last week, members of Congress contacted the president of the local NAACP chapter regarding the Congressional hearing, but local NAACP leaders were not invited to testify because they had received no complaints of racial profiling in relation to MCSO. More than 40 organizations participated in Tuesday's press event, including the NAACP. Lewis emphasized that African Americans in Arizona are in support of Latinos, adding, "Arpaio was trying to put that perception out there that they are not in support."
MCSO is under fire for its controversial 287(g) agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which allows MCSO officers to investigate, apprehend, transport, and detain people who are living or working in the country without authorization. Under 287(g), MCSO conducts employment raids, neighborhood sweeps, traffic stops, and investigations to crack down on illegal immigration and human trafficking in Maricopa County, which is situated less than 3 hours from the Mexican border.
When conducting "neighborhood sweeps," MCSO officers stop everyone indiscriminately, asking for proof of legal residence, detaining those who cannot satisfactorily prove their legal right to be in the country. ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said today that neighborhood sweeps are only happening in areas where there is a concentration of color and that people of color are afraid to leave home without proof of citizenship. Arpaio says that he only conducts neighborhood sweeps based on tips about hardened criminals.
Organizers also criticized Arpaio's use of SWAT teams, helicopters, and heavily armed, masked officers. Arpaio repeatedly insists that overwhelming force is necessary when officers enter gang-infested neighborhoods. Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said these tactics by MCSO have made people afraid to report crimes in their communities.
Wilcox wants to see the community portion of 287(g) removed. She also alleged that Arpaio has been "empowered and emboldened," she said, by a county attorney who has interpreted the law to give more power to Arpaio than is actually warranted. These are common refrains from the two sides, with immigrant rights activists saying that Arpaio bends or breaks the law, and Arpaio repeatedly proclaiming that he knows, follows, and enforces all laws, "even when those laws are unpopular."
Organizers emphasized a call to repeal of 287(g). National figures pointed out that MCSO is not the focus itself, but with 160 trained officers -- the largest contingent of 287(g) lawmen in the country -- MCSO is the most notable example. Several organizers noted that the Arpaio model is being followed by other local law enforcement agencies across the country. Sharpton said, "We must stop Arpaio to stop the spread of racial profiling."
Sharpton described the 287(g) statute as "nebulous" and said it leads to racial profiling and "harassment based on color."
Recently, locals who both support and oppose Arpaio have taken exception to comparing Phoenix's sheriff to Bull Connor. Two local newspaper columnists have written dueling columns on the issue. When asked to comment the controversy over the comparisons of Arpaio to Bull Connor, Sharpton bristled, saying, "We all just need to stop comparing disparities and start correcting disparities."