Jaco: STL County GOP embraces convicted Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Ex Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who avoided jail because of a pardon from President Donald Trump, seemed at home among St. Louis County Republicans Saturday night. The man convicted of ignoring a federal judge’s order to stop rounding up people because they looked Latino and in whose lock-ups dozens of people died under unexplained circumstances posed with eager GOP loyalists in front of a “Build the Wall” banner at the Orlando Gardens Banquet Center in South County.

The guest speaker at the County GOP’s “Lincoln Days” dinner, the man called “America’s worst lawman” by the libertarian Reason magazine and “a stain on his party” by the conservative Washington Examiner had been invited because, in the words of St Louis County GOP Chair Rene Artman, the disgraced lawman with a history of bigotry “represents the values and principles of St. Louis County Republicans.”

Arpaio might not have noticed the woman in a red dress sitting at a table near the stage. If he did, the man who refused to let Latina prisoners have feminine hygiene products and whose outdoor “concentration camp” for suspected illegal immigrants featured tents and prisoners baking in the 130-degree Arizona heat might have only noticed that she was younger than most of the crowd.

Artman had greeted her, and told her she would be seated at a table with St. Louis conservative African-American activist Nicole Jenkins, Artman said, according to the woman in red, “Nicole is black, but she’s OK.”

Arpaio began his speech, praising Trump, joking about the charge he ran “concentration camps,” and attacking Trump’s opponents for being part of what Arpaio called “the war on the police.”

The woman in red maneuvered closer to the stage, shooting video with her cell phone. Arpaio, once referred to by a New York Times columnist as “a truly sadistic man,” was getting ready to regale the crowd with tales of his 24 years as Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff.

 “I was the longest-serving sheriff in Arizona history because,” Arpaio said, pausing for effect.

But he was interrupted by a cry from the crowd: “You’re a f**king racist!” 

Arpaio stared at the woman in red. She added, for effect, “So f**k you!” Chairs scooted across the floor. People stood up. One man yelled “B**ch!” Others got up, and moved toward the woman in red, who by this time was headed for an exit door near the stage. Several people came after her, but youth and a red dress were too fast for them. She was out the door and gone.

“It was the most bizarre experience of my life,” she later said, asking that her name not be used. A city resident who had planned her infiltration of the county GOP event for weeks, she summed up her rationale simply.

“I wanted to make sure my black and brown brothers’ and sisters’ voices were heard in that room,” she said. “No matter how hard they try, these white supremacists are never going to silence their voices.”

Bigotry and white nationalism are the core values of Trump’s GOP. And in that case, what better person than Arpaio and what better place than St. Louis to display those values?

The 1948 Supreme Court case that outlawed discrimination in selling homes came from St. Louis. The 1979 House Assassinations Committee report concluded that the conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King Jr. was hatched in St. Louis by an attorney named Jack Sutherland. Sutherland had offered a bounty to whoever could murder King, spreading word around the Grapevine Tavern on Arsenal Street.

The Grapevine was owned by John Ray. John passed word to his brother, James Earl Ray, about Sutherland’s bounty offer. According to the House Assassinations Committee, James Earl Ray broke out of the Missouri State Penitentiary to kill King and get the reward.

That legacy lives on. Racist radio hosts like Bob Romanik spew hate daily, either overtly or via dog-whistle. The city’s police union has a reputation for bigotry. Flyers for the white nationalist Patriot Front group have begun appearing in the South Side’s 15th Ward. Ferguson and decades of white flight have cemented the St. Louis region’s national reputation for racism. You know the story. You live here.

So Joe Arpaio was a natural choice for the County GOP’s Lincoln Days dinner. Sutherland would have felt as at home at the dinner as he did at the Grapevine Tavern when he was asking who was willing to kill King for $15,000.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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