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Charles Barkley and the Fight for Immigrant Rights


If you tuned into CNN last weekend, you may have seen a press conference with NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and a plump, hatchet-faced lawman who calls himself "the toughest sheriff in America," Joe Arpaio. You may have caught Sheriff Joe making clear with a feral smile that no, Barkley would not be required to "wear the pink underwear." It was American law enforcement at its ugliest.

Barkley, the fast-living, big-drinking, loud-talking NBA player turned commentator, was pulled over on December 31 for driving while intoxicated. The former hoops superstar was fined $2,000, sentenced to an alcohol treatment program and ordered to install an ignition interlock device on his cars. He also had to spend three days at Sheriff Joe’s notorious Tent City prison. Barkley’s experience was hardly typical for Tent City. He was given his own tent, where he could eat meals in privacy. He wasn’t served food surplus like the prison’s infamous green bologna for meals. He didn’t have to listen to the prison radio station, KJOE, which plays all of Sheriff Joe’s favorite hits. He could wear a red Nike tracksuit instead of the prison jumpsuit. He also participated in the press conference where Arpaio plugged his book, America’s Toughest Sheriff: How We Can Win the War Against Crime.

And, as mentioned, he didn’t have to wear the pink underwear Sheriff Joe favors for those under his thumb. But there was even more "Chuck" didn’t have to do as a resident of Tent City. Sheriff Joe doesn’t only enjoy the thrill of knowing that his prisoners are pretty in pink. He has been known to parade the undocumented immigrants among them in shackles, wearing only their state-supplied pink underwear in front of a bevy of armed guards and a gaggle of television cameras. The mainstream media didn’t travel into the dry desert heat to expose Sheriff Joe’s tactics. They came because they received the press release, written by Sheriff Joe himself. In one of Sheriff Joe’s "advisories," he made note of the state-of-the-art electric fence, promising that it would give "quite a shock–literally" to any escapees.

The Tent City also subjects the underwear-clad prisoners to the crushing Arizona heat, something Barkley, who was on "work release" from 8 am to 8 pm, was able to avoid. It can get blisteringly hot. Sheriff Joe’s response to safety concerns was to say, "It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents, and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths." This attitude is the reason why Maricopa County has had to pay out $43 million under Sheriff Joe’s leadership in wrongful death and injury cases.

But not everyone has the resources to issue lawsuits. Sheriff Joe, a man with his own reality program and his own "civilian posse," has made a national name for himself by being on the front lines of attacks on undocumented immigrants. Sheriff Joe’s methods have led the Justice Department to announce on Wednesday that it is investigating his department for "patterns or practices of discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures." The Arizona Republic reports that David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, believes it is the department’s first civil rights probe related to immigration enforcement.

Not surprisingly, Sheriff Joe justifies his treatment of immigrants on the most racist and intellectually specious grounds. He says that the Tent City is "a financially responsible alternative to taxpayers already overburdened by the economic drain imposed by a growing number of illegal aliens on social services like education and healthcare." This blithely ignores the fact that undocumented workers actually put more back into the economy than they extract, since they pay into Social Security and payroll taxes without getting anything back.

Barkley was shielded from the true ugliness of Sheriff Joe. But now that he is out of prison, the Arizona resident should do what he does best and speak his mind. Make no mistake, Barkley would have something to say. There was a time when Barkley was a proud Republican and entertained the idea of running for governor of Alabama. In fact, when Sheriff Joe’s book came out in 1996, the blurbs on the back cover included praise from Rush Limbaugh, John McCain and, yes, Charles Barkley. But since those days, Barkley has undergone a transformation. He now says Republicans have "lost their minds." Last summer Barkley said, "What do the Republicans run on? Against gay marriage and for a war that makes no sense. A war that was based on faulty intelligence. That’s all they ever talk about. That and immigration. Another discriminatory argument for political gain."

Barkley most likely understands that anti-immigrant policies are discriminatory nonsense, that the politics of poverty are critical in the United States and that there is more to life than material gain. Now that he is away from the watchful eye of Sheriff Joe, it’s time for Barkley to apply those principles and call for the closing of Tent City, the removal of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the end of criminalizing the undocumented as a spectator sport.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

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