AUGUST 25, 2021
INFAMOUS MARICOPA COUNTY Sheriff Joe Arpaio had already made a career out of fearmongering, forcing his prisoners to wear pink underwear and sleep outside in tents despite the Arizona heat. Then he revved up anti-immigration discourse and started rounding up suspected undocumented workers, actions that got him convicted of a federal crime.
Then came the blowback: a massive movement in Arizona that energized Latino voters and swept the once-popular sheriff out of office in 2016, even as his hero Donald Trump cleaned up at the Electoral College. This extraordinary story is at the core of Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block’s Driving While Brown: Sherriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance, a book that brilliantly deconstructs Arpaio’s discourse and exposes him as a demagogic anti-immigration crusader who prepared the stage for Trump, even as he paid the price for years of official cruelty.
Using interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, books, court documents and cases, ICE records, memoirs, and other sources, the authors paint a nuanced, comprehensive picture of Joe Arpaio’s downfall at the hands of Latinos who had finally had enough. One of them was Lydia Guzman, an activist who built a thick file of information and kept a vital hotline alive — even when personal stressors mounted and money to feed her kids was scarce.
Joe Arpaio always made great newspaper copy, and Driving While Brown brings him vividly to the page. He delighted in giving tours of his “Tent City” jail to show how he treated his pink-clad prisoners. The authors write:
Reporters sometimes asked about the inmates’ obvious misery, and Arpaio would frown, explain he didn’t make the law, he only enforced it, and criminals got exactly what they deserved. He seemed to like these televised combative exchanges and controversies that he could control. He told us it didn’t matter if he got good or bad publicity. The end result was that the press interviews enabled him to talk directly to “the people” — his base of voters who liked his tough approach toward inmates.
That brief passage illustrates two things the book does well. The first is that it allows Arpaio to present himself as he is: a self-obsessed man who loved media attention and an elected cop who used the law to benefit his own agenda rather than that of the people he claimed to serve. Arpaio lost multiple lawsuits, most of which had to do with abuse of power and persecuting people he perceived as rivals. The State Bar of Arizona eventually disbarred Andrew Thomas, the lawyer who helped Arpaio bring cases against his detractors. With every financial settlement following his barrage of baseless criminal prosecutions, Maricopa County taxpayers were forced to pay the bill for the sheriff’s circus.
The second thing the authors do well is allow Arpaio, who loved to talk, to paint himself into a corner with a bucketful of contradictions. When questioned about his anti-immigration raids, the sheriff usually talked about a nameless uncle, his father’s brother, who tried to come to the United States in the 1920s from Italy but was not allowed into the country because of restrictive immigration quotas. According to Arpaio, his uncle “ended up in Canada because he couldn’t get in here” and then spent years unsuccessfully trying to move to the United States. The family story gave Arpaio a quotable narrative about how a lot of good people who try to immigrate legally never get the chance to do so. However, Greene Sterling and Joffe-Block fact-checked the story, and it didn’t make sense given the immigration policy at the time: “While the uncle was likely blocked from entering the United States when he crossed the ocean from Italy, immigration laws at the time did not restrict Italian migrants from entering the United States if they’d lived in Canada for five years.”
While lies and half-truths were part of Arpaio’s arsenal from day one, the real problem came from the people who fell in love with his anti-immigrant variety show. American nativists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists saw Arpaio as a hero keeping undocumented migrants out of Arizona. The illegality and inhumanity of his tactics didn’t matter. This normality of extremity, Greene Sterling and Joffe-Block argue, helped pave the way for Donald Trump’s presidency.
This is also a book that brings the lives of many community leaders and organizers to center stage and shines a light on their struggles to maintain humane immigration policies and keep families together. Arpaio’s despicable actions were answered by people who saw the racism for what it was and put themselves at risk by fighting him all the way.
Guzman emerges as an unsung heroine of the Latino civil right movement. In one memorable excerpt, she drives back to the scene of an earlier altercation to pick up beans from the sidewalk, so she could feed her family. Guzman and every leader and organizer mentioned in Driving While Brown were as responsible as Arpaio’s misrule for galvanizing the Latino vote and increasing Latino voter turnout. This eventually helped “Democrat Kyrsten Sinema defeat Republican Martha McSally for the Senate seat that Arpaio had wanted” and also delivered Arizona’s electoral votes to Joe Biden in 2020.
Driving While Brown is as engaging as it is enraging. It is a book that chronicles the ways in which hate and racism can become institutionalized and the way underrepresented minorities are often powerless because of it. Immigration is a timely policy issue, but at the center of it are families looking for a better future and community leaders like Guzman who give everything they can to make a difference.
Greene Sterling and Joffe-Block do a superb job of reintroducing people to the discussion and exposing how white supremacy is the unspoken root of much of today’s political discourse. That makes Driving While Brown a necessary read that is more than a biography of a blowhard sheriff — it is a chronicle of how seemingly impossible battles are the ones that matter most.