Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chicanonautica: Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- Performance Artist

by Ernest Hogan

With all respect to my personal favorite performance artists, Guillermo Gómez-Peńa, and La Pocha Nostra, I’ve got got to admit that the greatest performance artist of our times is Joe Arpiao, Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Sheriff Joe doesn’t have to go begging to fund his art -- local taxpayers and the federal government, until recently, have lavished the bucks on him. And he doesn’t need to worry about finding “art space” -- the media brings his performances to the world.

When he was first elected he promised to have his volunteer posse -- on horseback -- chase the prostitutes out of downtown Phoenix. Soon our local commercial sex workers and clients were conducting transactions in the bushes of my quiet neighborhood.

Then the mounted posse took to patrolling malls during the holidays. These were the malls on the West side where I live. The side where a lot of fair-skinned citizens are afraid to come after dark.

He also brought back the American tradition of the chain gang -- and even struck a blow for women’s rights by forming the first female chain gang. Often I would see young black and brown women, wearing orange jumpsuits and chained together, picking up roadside litter on my daily commute. Reminded me of what kind of society I was living in.

And we can’t forget Tent City -- an outdoor jail where those who haven’t yet undergone a trial sweat it out in pink underwear as they eat green baloney.

A favorite performance event of mine was from April 1999, when a mysterious object appeared in front of Sheriff Joe’s house. A police robot and the media were called in. Soon the Metro Phoenix area was treated to live TV coverage -- which must have eaten up some serious dinero -- of the robot facing off with a metal thing that looked like prop from old-fashioned sci-fi flick while Arpaio speculated about it being a bomb. The object looked more like stylized metal spider to me. After it was blown up, the object was found to be a piece of sculpture!

Was that performance or what?

Of course, Sheriff Joe’s most infamous performances are his immigration sweeps. They are popular with the sort of folks who have told me that the way to keep their neighborhoods safe is to keep the “Mexicans” out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell who is “Mexican” or “illegal.” Which has landed the Sheriff in the trouble with the Justice Department that he’s in today, and inspired Melinda Palacio’s novel Ocotillo Dreams, and my story “Burrito Meltdown.”

It’s nice when art inspires more art.

Lately, Sheriff Joe has been doing the kind of performance he does best -- the press conference where he comes on like a comedian doing a John Wayne imitation, warning the voters that if he’s stopped, a tsumani of criminals will rush across the border, bringing an end to civilization as we know it in Arizona.

I’ve often wondered, do the people who vote for Joe Arpiao, and his media fans, know the difference between law enforcement and performance art? Is there a difference in the Information Age? Is reality in Arizona a just a spaghetti western?

Ernest Hogan lives under the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and will be reviewing Melinda Palacio’s Ocotillo Dreams soon.

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