Confronting Arpaio's hate in Massachusetts

Emily Richardson reports on a protest against former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, as he rallied right-wingers in Massachusetts in support of gun rights.

Rallying against far-right former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Belchertown, MassachusettsRallying against far-right former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Belchertown, Massachusetts

JOE ARPAIO, the right-wing former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, visited a gun club in Belchertown, Massachusetts, to rally for Second Amendment rights.

While he and his supporters tried to separate this event from the anti-immigrant, racist policies of his law enforcement career, people in Western Massachusetts weren't willing to let this bigot host an event in their backyard without a show of opposition.

They mobilized for a protest--and brought out as many as 200 people against Arpaio.

Arpaio boasts a "tough on crime" approach to law enforcement. In 1993, he opened "Tent City," a prison camp in Arizona for detained undocumented immigrants. The conditions of the camp were humiliating and inhumane, with detainees living in blistering heat, and exemplary of Arpaio's policies as sheriff.

In late June, Arpaio went on trial for criminal contempt of court, accused of ignoring a judge's 2011 order to stop illegally detaining immigrants. Despite the fact that the judge's order was front-page news, Arpaio's longtime aide now claims he didn't know about it. "If we were guilty of anything, it was maybe that we were a little lazy and a little incompetent," Lisa Allen told the Arizona Republic.

Although Arpaio's reign ended recently when Paul Penzone was elected sheriff, his policies and the militaristic Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) presence in Maricopa County (and around the country) continue to pose a threat to undocumented people.

The counterrally to the gun rights event headlined by Arpaio was cosponsored by several liberal and left-leaning organizations. The lead organization, Belchertown Voices for Justice, began when Belchertown residents came together after Trump's election, mainly in response to the increase in hate crimes and the overt repression of the new president, including the travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

To protest Arpaio, Belchertown Voices for Justice partnered with other local organizations, including the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, a group that advocates for labor rights and justice locally, especially for immigrants and undocumented workers who are most vulnerable to exploitation by employers.

According to organizers, the aim of the counterprotest was to make a statement about community values.

"We wanted to hold this kind of gathering to show both Belchertown and neighboring communities that the kind of hatred, the kind of anti-immigrant sentiments and some of the violence that was espoused by some of the folks who were invited to be at the Joe Arpaio event is not at all in sync with what Belchertown thinks; it's not in line with our values," said Gail Gramarossa, an organizer with Belchertown Voices for Justice.

Rally attendees carried signs including "Philando Castile, Say His Name"--a reference to the motorist murdered in his car last July by a police officer outside St. Paul, Minnesota--and "No human being is illegal." The event was an opportunity for groups and individuals to connect and publicly display the left's presence in the Pioneer Valley.

As many as 200 people from nearby towns and as far away as central Vermont gathered to hear organizers speak and to protest on the Belchertown Commons, about five miles from the gun club where Arpaio was speaking. The Western Massachusetts branch of the International Socialist Organization led chants and had conversations with attendees about police brutality, institutional violence and the reality of life in America as an undocumented immigrant.

As Liz Curran-Groome with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center said, "Events like this that are grassroots help people figure out how to connect with their community, and that's the basis for broad solidarity and power against the right."

Many attendees expressed a desire to stand in solidarity with others against the right. "I came from Springfield and feel showing up for each other to show solidarity and standing up for every town in our area is important. The 1 Percent would like to pit our communities against each other, so we have to show each other that we can stand together," said Ivette Hernandez.

Events like the counterprotest against Arpaio and his right-wing cohorts are incredibly important for growing consciousness and building the left locally, nationally and internationally.

By the end of the day, people were more unified in message from the chants and conversations, and organizers emphasized the necessity of using such events to build a movement in Western Massachusetts and beyond.