Arizona Is Drowning in a Sea of Extremism

Human Rights

The social fabric of Arizona seems to be deteriorating as fast as the state's population grows, driving the state to the brink of dysfunction. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killing of U.S. District Court Judge John Roll and several other innocent bystanders by a lone gunman have brought Arizona's crisis to the fore, prompting Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik to aptly declare Arizona "the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Since I first traveled to Arizona over seven years ago to interview right-wing extremists participating in armed anti-immigrant vigilante patrols along the border, I have watched up close as the state drowned in a sea of extremism, signing away its future in the form of racist ballot measures and budget-busting tax cuts. In this climate, the assassination attempt on Giffords was not terribly surprising.

My experience began in early 2003 at a propane delivery shop in Sierra Vista, a rural town along the U.S.-Mexico border. It was there that I met Roger Barnett, a lumbering 60-year-old former deputy sheriff who had become a posterboy for the burgeoning national anti-immigrant movement. Barnett boasted to me that he had personally captured 12,000 migrants traversing his ranch, held them at the point of an assault rifle, and turned them over to the Border Patrol.

"They [the Mexicans] are gonna take over our country," Barnett rumbled. "Do you remember what the Iraqis did with our pilots in Desert Storm? They took them hostage. It’s the same deal here,” he said to me. When I challenged his right to detain people at gunpoint, he lunged across the table at me and rumbled, “What are you, a fucking lawyer?”

Arizona demonstrated leadership in the field of bigotry as early as 1990, when state lawmakers (including John McCain) refused to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday, prompting the National Football League to move the Super Bowl from Phoenix to another city. But as migrant trials shifted from newly walled-off border cities to Arizona's desert, the state became a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment. Discriminatory bills that targeted Latino immigrants flew through the Republican-dominated legislature, while extremists from around the country poured into the state to join the Minutemen, a far-right vigilante group inspired by Barnett. (Shawna Forde, a former Seattle prostitute who helped lead an Arizona Minutemen chapter, is currently on trial for killing a 9-year-old girl and her father in a botched robbery.)

Led by lawmakers like Russell Pearce, a fanatically anti-immigrant state senator who has proudly palled around with local neo-Nazis, the Republican-controlled state legislature refuses to stop cutting taxes on businesses and the wealthy. To plug the whopping $4.5 billion deficit it created, Arizona has had to auction off all of its state buildings -- including the Capitol and state hospital -- to the highest bidder.

A bizarre federal program called Operation Streamline helps pump federal money into the anemic local economy. In this non-productive economic scheme, desperate migrants serve as commodities; 75 of them are marched in chains into a federal courtroom in Tucson each day, compelled to plead guilty en masse to entering the country, then shuttled to a corporate-owned prison in rural Pinal County before they are deported on private charter flights. Though several prisoners have died in the jail in Pinal, including one who was refused treatment despite writhing in pain with testicular cancer, the process of incarcerating them has brought 1,500 new jobs to the previously depressed area, making it one of Money Magazine's top rated employment growth hubs. (The program costs American taxpayers $11 million per month.)

One of the most popular politicians throughout the past decade in Arizona is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a draconian character revered by conservatives as "America's toughest sheriff." Arpaio is famous for setting up racial profiling checkpoints and forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear in a tent city prison he proudly calls "a concentration camp." Investigations by the FBI and Department of Justice have damaged his standing somewhat, but Arpaio still sets the political tone.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a notoriously daft moderate Republican who was initially loathed by the state's far-right, survived a tough re-election campaign this year only by adopting Arpaio's race-baiting politics, endorsing a ballot measure authored by Pearce that literally mandated the local police with racially profiling anyone who looked "illegal."

When President Barack Obama took office, Arizona's anti-immigrant Right fused with extreme Religious Right elements under the the banner of the Tea Party. In August 2009, 28-year-old Chris Broughton openly carried an AR-15 assault rifle and a handgun to an Obama rally in Phoenix. The night before, Broughton attended a sermon led by Rev. Steven Anderson, a local Tea Party activist. Calling his sermon "Why I Hate Barack Obama," Anderson declared, "When I go to bed tonight, Steven L. Anderson is going to pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell."

A few months later, after Obama's health care plan passed through Congress, the windows of Rep. Giffords' office in Tucson were shattered by shots from a pellet gun, an attack possibly inspired by a far-Right anti-government militia leader's call on his blog to "send a message that [the Democrats] cannot fail to hear: break their windows."

I was summoned back into Arizona's violent climate in February 2009 to testify as a prosecution witness in a civil trial against Barnett, who was being sued by a group of migrants for physically attacking them while holding them at gunpoint and threatening to kill them. Judge Roll had certified the trial, an act that invited hundreds of threats against him and his family, forcing him to live under 24-hour protective guard. He was a conservative Republican but he was committed to the rule of law; in his view, everyone deserved a chance at justice, even the faceless, scapegoated migrant.

In my testimony, I told the jury that Barnett bragged to me about taking migrants hostage. In the end, they delivered justice, forcing Barnett to pay his victims $73,000 in damages. When Roll politely excused me from his courtroom, I would not see him again until his face appeared in newscasts about the assassination attempt on Giffords.

Roll spent a significant part of his judicial career in Arizona's climate of violent extremism, and he died in it too. He was an innocent bystander, and not the only victim. Tragically, he may not be the last one either.

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