Using the executive pardon as an end run around a court’s enforcement of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law is endorsing the persecution of a minority ethnic group. That is what happened when President Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Aug. 25. This episode becomes part of the long history of the law failing to protect the Latino community from law enforcement.
The Arizona landscape that Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio patrolled bears witness to this history. Today’s border with Mexico was imposed by the force of arms and a new legal order whose laws did not apply equally. In these same deserts where Native and Mexican resistors died, brown-skinned peoples are again defying those imposed frontiers. Hundreds continue to die in the desert as a result of our immigration policies. Latino life, native and immigrant, has never meant much to the law there.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, corresponding to the height of Jim Crow laws in the South, the West saw a wave of killings and lawless violence directed at the country’s Mexican-origin people. Thousands of people were lynched in the Southwest, often with the complicity of law enforcement and the assistance of deputized posses. A generation later came equally lawless waves of mass deportation. In the 1930s, as one of the groups scapegoated for the Great Depression, over a million Mexican-origin people were rounded up and “repatriated” to Mexico. In the 1950s came “Operation Wetback,” where over a million Mexican-origin people were rounded up and deported, a precedent Donald Trump cited favorably when proposing his own mass deportations. In both historical cases the deportees included hundreds of thousands of American citizens, many of whom were never able to return.
The sheriff is the personification of law enforcement behaving lawlessly.
This is the legacy of violence and oppression that Sheriff Arpaio is part of. It was the practice of his sheriff’s department to target Latino people with groundless stops, unlawful detainment and physical abuse. A U.S. District Court found those practices unconstitutional and a violation of civil rights, and ordered him to stop. He refused. The sheriff is the personification of law enforcement behaving lawlessly. It is a new chapter in an old story: the struggle of Americans of color in this country to achieve equal treatment under the law.
The irony of the story of Sheriff Arpaio is that it looked to be a turning point in this struggle. Until President Trump’s pardon, this was a rare example of the system working for the marginalized. Even if only after decades of suffering inflicted on thousands of people, justice had been done. Through years of peaceful activism, the local Latino community brought attention to the systemic and lawless discrimination practiced by the sheriff’s office. Our system of government responded. First, Sheriff Arpaio lost re-election last fall. Then he was found guilty of criminal contempt for refusing to obey the court orders to cease his discriminatory practices. The law had proved stronger than the lawman and the rights of minorities had been upheld.
The president robbed a community he is oath-bound to represent of their hard-won justice.
It was not to last. The president robbed a community he is oath-bound to represent of their hard-won justice. Sheriff Arpaio’s conviction had shown the country that all Americans are protected under the law. Consider now the magnitude of what President Trump has taken away. This is the danger of the pardon: it sends a message to those in law enforcement who would violate the civil rights of Americans of color that they have a friend in the White House. It tells the rest of us that the pursuit of justice is futile. If there is ever a conviction for a police killing of an unarmed person of color, what is to stop the president from pardoning the officer? If the families whose children have been killed by Border Patrol firing into Mexico secure justice, what is to prevent a pardon from taking that justice away? It is now imaginable that the darkest days of racial inequality could return again to this country. Nominally the rule of law would prevent such a slippery slope, but in the name of “law and order” that rule is being undermined at every turn.
The pardon creates a new feeling of impunity for law enforcement, which in turn creates a new feeling of resentment and fear among the communities who have most suffered at law enforcement’s hand. Trump may be president for only three to seven more years. But the damage done to our faith in government, and our faith in each other, will last far longer than his presidency.