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Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Circus Comes to an End

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It took nearly a quarter of a century for one of the most notorious symbols of discrimination, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment to collapse. In Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio reigned almost unchecked from 1993 to 2016, when he lost his reelection campaign for a seventh term. A new administration now runs the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, and has announced that it will be closing Arpaio’s infamous “Tent City“.

Tuesday, April 4, at least for the state of Arizona, will be marked as the date when the new Maricopa County sheriff, Paul Penzone, established the beginning of the end of an ignominious era for the Hispanic community, Arpaio’s scapegoat par excellence.

Since its establishment in 1993, Tent City has resembled a twisted circus, the product of a sick mind focused on negatively displaying the Hispanic community, scapegoating on the basis of racial categorization, and using detainees for political purposes. Now it will be closing, in part because Arpaio — elected to be a lawman — refused to obey the laws of the land, and stuck by his anti-immigrant hate until it landed him charges for criminal contempt. Perhaps Arpaio never believed that what he was doing was going to have legal consequences in the long run, or perhaps he thought the contempt he incurred in disobeying federal judge Murray Snow’s orders wasn’t actually going to get him into trouble. As the Supreme Chief of his little fiefdom — he called himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — Arpaio apparently felt almighty.

And there were those who even justified his behavior saying by saying that he was doing his job, even when Arpaio ridiculed his prisoners by dressing them in pink underwear. Throughout history, there have always been such justifications — such as those who dismissed Hitler’s henchmen as those who simply followed orders.

Penzone said it very clearly in his speech announcing the closure of Tent City, saying that the site had created a “circus atmosphere”, but that the circus had to end. The closure is expected to occur over the next two months, as both prisoners and personnel transfer to other detention centers.

Meanwhile, Arpaio, 84, will begin his trial on April 25 — and he is currently asking the court to bar the testimony of Hispanics illegally detained by his agents, which he claims would be “irrelevant.”

The truth is that the first steps toward justice against Arpaio have already been taken, via his criminal contempt case and his failure to win reelection. But symbolically, the closing of Tent City is a victory against racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. And the ending of Arpaio’s quarter-century teaches us that no one in this country is above the law, not an anti-immigrant sheriff — or the president of the White House.