Bun B's Arizona Dispatch, Part 1: Talking Trump and Tent City with Sheriff Joe
A surprise interview with the lawless lawman.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks with a reporter outside Tent City Jail on May 3, 2010. Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Editor's Note: You might know Bun B as the Texas-based rapper, professor, and activist who's one half of the legendary Houston duo UGK. He's also VICE's newest political correspondent, reporting on the ground from the campaign trail of the strangest presidential election in recent memory.
Hello, folks. It's your friendly neighborhood rapper/educator/political correspondent, back on the campaign trail. It seems like all hell has broken loose since the last time I was out in this circus: Unfortunately, a lot of the ugliness I predicted back at my first Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire has come to pass, the byproduct of hateful rhetoric and brewing anger rearing its ugly orange head. People are no longer satisfied with dirty looks and side-eye—now, it's sucker punches and physical confrontations on the floor of political rallies. Even Trump's campaign manager has gotten in on it.
The tension isn't just palpable; we've passed that point. Between now and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, shit is only going to get more volatile, both inside and outside of these rooms. And this week, I've come to one of watch the primary go down in one of the most contentious places in America: Arizona.
If you've been paying attention to what's going on in the Republican race, you know that the state has been on fire since Saturday, when Trump supporters and protesters clashed at two huge Trump rallies in Phoenix and Tucson. Now, both Democrats and Republicans are set to vote on Tuesday, and the results could take Trump one step closer to locking up the nomination—which means there's more in store.
As you are no doubt aware by now, one of the biggest issues in the presidential race this year is immigration, specifically what to do about border security and the 11 million undocumented migrants living in the US right now. Arizona has been at the center of this battle for a very long time. The loudest voice by far on the subject has been Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, or as he likes to refer to himself, "America's Toughest Sheriff."
For years, Sheriff Joe, as he's universally known around here, has been a right-wing celebrity, and his name is synonymous with Arizona's strident anti-immigration policies, as well as prejudice and discrimination against people of color here. His attempts to enforce state immigration laws—practices that included pulling over everyone who looked like they might be illegal immigrants—have been a thinly veiled guise for racial profiling and straight-up harassment. He's actually currently facing contempt of court charges for failing to comply with an order to stop his office's racial profiling practices.
He's also the mastermind behind Maricopa County's Tent City Jail, a desert lockup where he's demanded that all inmates wear striped jumpsuits and pink underwear, and sleep outside in tents in a place where temperatures regularly break 100 degrees. The type of human rights violations you don't actually think happen in America. I wanna see this jail, feel it. I'd spend the night, but the wife ain't having it. So I'll settle for a tour.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is the third largest in the country, and its headquarters in downtown Phoenix is huge, a modern building with impressive architecture and a cactus garden out front. When you walk in, you're greeted by a leather saddle and bronze boots in front of a historical display of past sheriffs; an old Underwood typewriter and ancient CB equipment sit on a desk with a rotary phone and an open register of prisoners arrested in 1904. I look at the names: Molina. Padea. Gonzales. Garcia. Mendoza. Seems like the policing practices in Maricopa County are nothing new.
We're here to ambush one of the public information officers, and hopefully schedule an interview with the sheriff. Eventually, the security guard lets us past the main door. The hallway is lined with plaques honoring horses killed in the line of duty. Upstairs, a liaison meets us and takes us into the office area, and then we see the big man himself. Except Sheriff Joe isn't big at all. Or imposing. Or rude. As it becomes clear later, he's an 80-year-old man, who thinks and acts like an 80-year-old man, which means he goes from harmless to harmful in 0.2 seconds. But among his deputies, he's unassuming and seems low-maintenance—obviously the boss, but not making a big deal about it.
He's eating from a giant bag of popcorn, and there's a moment of confusion before we realize that instead of meeting with a media flack, we're meeting with Joe himself. His office, like the walls outside, is completely covered with photos of himself and his accolades: pictures of the sheriff with various politicians, on the cover of dozens of magazines, calling an investigation into Barack Obama's birth certificate on the cover of tabloids. Sheriff Joe claims to have done more than 4,000 press interviews since taking office in the early 1990s, and I realize that we're about to get one of them. I'm a lucky ass guy.
We start by asking him about the Trump rallies in Arizona on Saturday, both of which he attended. He launches into a long rundown of his presence at Trump events, including his endorsement of the real estate mogul back in Iowa. Eventually, he gets to the rally in Phoenix on Saturday, which took place in the Fountain Hills suburb where Joe lives, and which was the site of massive protests.
"I decided we weren't going to stop this rally like they did in Chicago, just because a few people are trying to stop it from happening," he says proudly. "So we cleared the area, we sent in the motorcade, thousands of people—it was very exciting, because I could wave to my wife on the patio, looking at thousands and thousands of people at the park."
He adds that in addition to his own deputies, there were 60 armed members of his sheriff's posse on the scene. Yeah, you read that right: Sheriff Joe has a posse—and a big one, at that. At one point, he claims, there were 3,000 civilian volunteers working for the sheriff's office in the city, sworn in by Sheriff Joe himself and policing the city under his authority. Working in conjunction with Joe's deputies, these citizen cops can actually draw down on you and make an arrest—like, in their pickup trucks or some shit. Insane shit.
For the most part, these citizen cops are self-funded—"they buy their own jeeps, their own airplanes," he tells us—but last week, Joe announced that he wants to expand the force, and will use some of the proceeds from seized weapons sales to equip the posse volunteers. "I want more volunteers," he tells us matter-of-factly. "We're fighting crime here, we're fighting terrorism. Everyday we have shootings."
He says this with absolutely no sign of a shit-eating grin or even a raised eyebrow. He shrugs, often. Nothing bothers this guy—that is until it bothers him, and then it's on in your life. Suddenly, I see it. This man truly gives no fucks. Like zero. He's too old to care what people think of him. And he has power: In this town, he can pretty much do whatever the fuck he wants to. So he does.
"I'm elected—I don't report to anybody," he tells us. "If Trump is elected president, I don't report to him. I report to the four million people that live here. Isn't it great to be elected? Think of that. We have three thousand sheriffs in this country. Now, I've taken a lot of heat, but you don't see anyone standing next to me."
Our fears about the power wielded by elected officials stem from people who behave like this dude. So when conservatives say they want to take power away from the federal government and give it back to state and local officials like Sheriff Joe, that's when I get fucking scared. Like walking home alone after a midnight screening of The Purge on Halloween scared.
After the interview winds down, we ask the sheriff's assistant if we can set up a time to see Tent City Jail, and she graciously obliges, scheduling a tour for us later that afternoon. For the moment, at least, it seems like the visit is working out in our favor.
The feeling turns out to be short lived. My excitement about seeing Tent City fades almost as soon as the tour begins. Our guide, a sergeant who works at the jail, tells us he's only given two tours before, and it shows. He's slow, and very deliberate, but it's only after he spends 15 minutes walking us through the various features of the Tent City lobby that we realize the tour isn't going to be what we thought it was.
We leave that room, and spend another 15 minutes in the administrative hallway, where our guide shows off an old-timey collage of contraband taken from the inmates. At this point, Grace Wyler, VICE's politics editor, and I are both starting to get anxious: We came here to see tents and inmates, not the goddamn time stamp machines and confiscated boxes of Newports. Slowly, we're starting to draw the conclusion that we've been sent on Maricopa County's version of a North Korean propaganda tour.
Inside, that point becomes increasingly clear. Our guide and the other jail officials he introduces us to are trying to sell us on some fantasy of how good the inmates have it here, skimming over the part about forcing prisoners to sleep in Korean War–era military tents in the middle of the desert. Their main selling point is the climate-controlled day room, and how proud they are of it, with its air-conditioning and 24-hour access. The inmates can't sleep in there, of course, and spend most of their days working outside, but how can any of that be a human rights violation when there's a room to cool off in.
Then there's the fact that every inmate in Tent City is required to work, and that most of them work on chain gangs. The jail parades them out across the desert 30-deep, in irons, and then back again, where they are strip-searched and sent back to their sweltering bunks, and if they're lucky, a few climate-controlled moments in Tent City's own Xanadu, that day room. Later, though our guide conveniently neglects to mention it, I learn that even juvenile offenders are forced to work on the chain gangs. WTF.
This shit has been a farce. Despite the apparent enthusiasm for publicity, it's clear that the sheriff's office has given us the runaround. The Tent City tour has revealed absolutely nothing, except a couple of empty hallways and a couple of vague shadows of striped uniforms wandering around a yard. Plus, it's 91 degrees, man—too hot for y'all to play with us like this. Inhaling dust and bullshit has taken its toll on me. Sheriff Joe may be playing with a loaded deck and trick glasses, but his jail is pretty obviously violating human rights, whether his deputies want to show it to us or not.
It's pretty obvious that, despite the federal government's attempts, no one is going to stop Sheriff Joe's crusade. And it's hard to escape the conclusion that if Trump, or someone like him, is elected president, we're going to see a lot more Sheriff Joes, popping up with their posses around this great country of ours. But fuck that. I'm starting an anti-posse. Built on standing up to the fuckery perpetrated on Americans of all races and religions. No gun required. Just love for your fellow man. Hit me up, and I'll swear you in.
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