Trump’s pardoning of Arpaio redefines 'justice' in America

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Joe Arpaio

“Sheriff Joe is a patriot,” President Trump declared to a journalist during one of his first news conferences after pardoning former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. The reporter had asked what the president had to say to critics who called the pardon a bad move, given Arpaio’s well-known and well-established racist and xenophobic actions. Joe Arpaio, according to Trump, was the one cheated and attacked by the criminal justice system — not his victims.

According to the dictionary, a patriot is “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors at all costs.” Since 2000, Arpaio has faced a string of misconduct cases for charges ranging from abusing his power, misusing funds, and failing to investigate sex crimes, to unlawfully enforcing immigration laws. And Arpaio is not shy about framing these allegations as pride-worthy defense: The self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” in America, counts among his proudest achievements the creation of the world’s first female chain gang in 2003. The gang, which required members to pick up trash and bury bodies for 30 days, was an alternative to confinement in an 8- by 12-foot cell for 23 hours a day with three other people. Arpaio also created Tent City, an outdoor structure built off the side of his jail in 1993, that he boasted was often compared to concentration camps. Inmates were forced to stay in Tent City even during the 148-degree Arizona summers when prisoners regularly complained about their shoes melting and the small fans strapped to their bunk beds not working. Arpaio, unsurprisingly, was also an avid anti-immigration advocate.

In July of 2017, Arpaio was convicted of unconstitutionally racially profiling Latinos. When he was sentenced, people celebrated that his years of running a system of torture essentially designed to punish people for being brown was coming to an end — that the justice Arpaio’s inmates deserved, real justice, had finally been served. And for a few weeks it seemed that the rest of America had realized that, too.

But on the August night Trump pardoned this “patriot,” our country was once again reminded that we are governed by a man who believes Arpaio was not torturing people, but vigorously supporting his country by defending it against, by saving it from, our enemies. Trump’s message is clear: In this country, the enemies are latinos. To add insult to injury, Trump announced this on August 25, the same night Hurricane Harvey ripped through Nicaragua, Honduras, the Yucatan Peninsula, the Southeastern United States, and other predominantly Latinx communities.

Justice in the age of Trump looks like well-dressed white men who have done horrible things striding untouched through the light of day while brown men squint in dark cells, behind barbed-wire fences. It is a white man tweeting world leaders, thanking them for ending the “political witch hunts” against him as Latinos in his country are still targeted by law enforcement every day. It is the demonization of people of color and the praising of those who do the demonizing.

The dictionary definition of “justice” is simple: “just behavior or treatment.” But what happens when you watch the news and witness Joe Arpaio, a man who proudly treats people as less than human, get the “justice” the leader of the free world thinks he deserves? The answer to that question should terrify us.

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