Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Protesters, journalists and Sheriff Arpaio

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faced questions from a panel of professor/reporters last night at the Cronkite School in a Meet-The-Press-style interview session, but the event was cut short by Queen-inspired protesters, just as Arpaio reached the topic of immigration enforcement.

Full disclosure: I am a Cronkite School student currently working on a thesis project about undocumented students and immigration law. That's the main reason I decided to attend the Arpaio event Monday night. I've heard the sheriff talk many times before while interning as a reporter for the Arizona Republic. I even covered a pro-Arpaio rally starring the man himself. I feel pretty confident in knowing the type of answers he gives and the rationale behind his actions. (see: "I'm just enforcing the law.") However, I needed more footage for my project, and figured the evening would be interesting — Arpaio speaking in my own living room, as it were.

I wasn't disappointed.

In a room filled with approximately 200 people (mostly ASU students), tensions were high as Arpaio spoke. The panel focused most on issues concerning First Amendment rights and public records requests for information, as well as the alleged intimidation of reporters by the Sheriff's Office. Arpaio's answers were anything but forthright. In most cases, he redirected and often just responded by whining about the media. (It brought a sharp in my mind between the allowances journalists give interviews in comparison to, say, a lawyer questioning a witness. Arpaio would make a terrible, non-responsive witness.) I could tell the reporters attempting to question him were getting frustrated. Rick Rodriguez, one of the panel members, spent a good ten minutes trying to get a straight answer regarding threats made to reporters before ultimately moving on.

That's not to say the panel's questions weren't effective. Many times, Arpaio seemed visibly uncomfortable. Further, the audience of skeptical, young students was anything but supportive of the sheriff's coy remarks.

Singing broke out as the questions turned to immigration enforcement, about 15 minutes before the event's end. Standing on the third-level above the forum, I could see the group of protesters. They were obviously students (police officers were only admitting ASU students into the building due to crowd concerns), and I believe they were not journalism students because I didn't recognize any of them. To the tune of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," the protesters continued to sing for upward of five minutes, enduring shouts for quiet from the surrounding crowd. Arpaio left the stage without a word.

I know immigration is a heated topic; I'm doing my undergrad/graduate thesis on undocumented students. There's no doubt that it is a compelling issue, one of high drama and divisive opinion. However, I wish the protesters had found a better way — say, silently hanging signs. Ultimately, what the singers disrupted was not an event supporting the sheriff but a panel of reports asking very critical questions of him — a rare opportunity for accountability. I see nothing wrong with their convictions, but this act was undecided misdirected.

I doubt the protesters understood their actions' consequence: they rescued Sheriff Arpaio from the hot seat. Young people seem to favor rash action and a moment of consideration might have caused them to at least delay their display.

Regardless, I doubt Arpaio will return to the Cronkite School's "Must See Mondays" soon.

Here's a link to Cronkite School writer-in-residence Terry Greene's account of the event. Greene is currently writing a book on immigration and is one of my thesis directors.

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