“It has been said that an inmate should stock up on the free toothpaste that is offered, because you can use it to block the cracks in the ground to prevent the cockroaches from getting through,” the handbook advises.
When it rains, the tent canvasses emit a foul odor, and dirt mingled with pigeon shit washes down onto the bunks underneath. Inmates who don’t know English are required to take classes where they learn the lyrics to “God Bless America”.
July, August, and September are the worst months, due to the extreme heat of the Sonoran Desert. Last week, temperatures inside the tents reached 135 degrees. The jail is the creation of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who built the prison with the intention of saving taxpayer money. The Sheriff himself has described the prison as “a concentration camp”.
“I put those tents up August three, 1993, when I ran I said I’m going to put Korean war tents up. We went, we got 70 tents…brought it to our county, had free land next to the dump, the dog pound, and the waste disposal plant, that’s where the tents are!” barks Arpaio, slurring his words slightly.
The crowd gathered on the steps of the Salem Capitol building erupts into cheers and laughter. Nearly everyone is old, white, and wearing patriotic colors. A self-appointed security guard dressed in tactical gear and armed with a rifle is keeping an eye on the event.
Across the street a large group of counter protesters, many of them young and Latino, kept up a steady roar. Arpaio seemed pleased with their turnout, calling them “his fans” and playing off of their chanting in his speech.
The 83 year-old Arpaio, or “Sheriff Joe” as he’s known, was being hosted by the Oregon Republican Party to drum up support for the upcoming election season. Jubilant over the defeat of Measure 88, which would have granted driving privileges to undocumented residents, nativist Oregonians are pushing for two measures that represent two mainstays of their cause: official English and e-Verify.
According to the text, HB 3078 is a bill that would “require that all official business of Oregon be conducted in English.” The other requires state agencies to screen employees using E-Verify, a federal employment eligibility system.
Both are aimed at Oregon’s immigrant populations in an effort to make the state as unwelcoming as possible. Nativist groups hope that the lack of resources will drive undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin and deter future ones.
Cruelty towards immigrants who broke the law by not coming here “the right way,” is the modus operandi for nativists. So its no surprise that Sheriff Joe, who champions some of the harshest anti-immigrant policies around, is so popular amongst them.
Before Arpaio arrived, I walked around and talked to some of the attendees, many of whom were suspicious of me. “I’m here to provide additional security for Sheriff Joe,” the man with the rifle tells me. He identified himself as an “Oath Keeper Three Percenter” and while we were speaking he kept his eyes trained on a man in a Guy Fawkes mask. I ask him about his hat, which bears the slogan MOΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ.
“It means ‘Come and Take It’,” he explains, “it’s a motto for patriots.”
“Can you tell me how to pronounce it?” I ask.
He thinks hard for a moment before responding.
“I’d have to get online and do some research. I don’t recall.”
“I don’t need security, I’m in Oregon!” Arpaio growled as he ascended the capitol steps. Intense sunlight reflected off of his perfectly combed hair as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” blared from the speakers.
“We love you, Sheriff Joe!” one man gushes from the audience.
Arpaio’s speech is a lot of patriotic flimflam about not surrendering to your enemy intermixed with ramblings of flag worship.
“I just celebrated my birthday, uh, uh, June fourteenth, Flag Day. And uh, I see the flags are…but I didn’t see much ah uh, much, uh celebrating for the flag, our own flag, flag day June fourteenth. Of course that’s a big issue now down South, flags, everybody’s getting rid of flags, and everything else. I’m not going to get into that but I kinda look at it, I wish we’d get the same attention for our flag.”
Arpaio seems to lose momentum on this one so he dives right into a shout out to veterans, bringing the crowd back from the dead. He continues on with more talk of standing behind your principles before spontaneously declaring:
“There’s some pink underwear floating around here!”
When talking about Sheriff Joe, the subject inevitably turns to the iconic pink underwear that Arpaio requires all Tent City inmates to wear. “Everybody says ‘Sheriff, what’s the pink underwear?’ Well I have a reason for that. The official reason, they were stealing the white underwear out of the jail and selling the underwear on the black market. They weren’t even washed and they were selling them.”
And people lose their shit over the pink underwear. Anything that further humiliates and punishes people already in prison is really exciting to these people.
“If I fly for free, can I come down there and dye the underwear?” one man asks.
The underwear have become so popular that Sheriff Joe now sells them online himself.
“So we started selling the underwear to give the money to the kids, the youth assistance foundation. So everybody loves the underwear.”
There were several pairs being auctioned off that day, along with autographed books and something called a “Sheriff Arpaio personal coin”. The grand prize was dinner that night with Arpaio and Representative Greg Barreto, something which seemed to come as a surprise to the sheriff.
An aging veteran wins a pair of the pink underwear, putting them on with glee before marching across the street and walking down the line of protesters with his arms raised in victory. He comes back and stands next to Sheriff Joe, encouraging him to go across the street to confront them.
Although the speeches continue, Sheriff Joe wanders off the stage with his entourage and makes his way towards the counter protest.
“Wait, where are you going?” says the guy at the podium.
The man in tactical gear bumps into me as he scrambles to walk next to Arpaio.
“Sorry!” he calls back. The crowd across the street gets louder as Arpaio approaches. Some people turn their back, others scream at him, try to ask him questions, push their children forward so that he can see them.
A lot of people flip him the bird.
As the Arpaio makes his way down the line, the man in the pink underwear pokes at protester’s signs with an American flag.
Arpaio loves this.
Pleased with the ruckus he created, Arpaio smiles and waves as he climbs into a pearl white Nissan SUV, and is whisked away into the Salem afternoon.