Joe Arpaio has been a world-class jerk a lot longer than you ever knew
Joe Arpaio made his conservative bones as the hardline, long-time sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, home of Phoenix, the state’s largest city. Housing inmates in sweltering tent cities in the desert heat, forcing them to wear pink underwear and feeding them slop as incarceration porn voyeurs watched with glee on internet feeds helped make Arpaio a hero of the reactionary right.
He cemented that status with his ill-treatment of the state’s Hispanic population in the guise of enforcing federal immigration laws—even as federal courts barred him from conducting “immigration roundups” and the Justice Department found he had overseen the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history. Arpaio’s egregious misbehavior ended up costing Arizona taxpayers $146 million in fees, settlements and court awards.
Arpaio didn’t care, and he positively reveled in the applause his lawless crackdowns won from the likes of Fox News and Donald Trump. Even after the federal court injunction against his racist immigration sweeps, he continued to order his office to detain “persons for investigation without reasonable suspicion a crime has been or is being committed,” the court found. That behavior eventually earned him a criminal contempt citation, for which he was convicted in July and pardoned by Trump last month.
But Arpaio’s history as a reactionary lawman goes back well before his seemingly endless tenure as “America’s Sheriff.” (He served for 23 years before being defeated in his 2016 election bid.) As an agent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the predecessor to the DEA), Arpaio kept busy busting hippies in the 1960s, including one of Texas’ biggest music legends.
In 1965, the Sir Douglas Quintet had a monster national and international hit with “She’s About a Mover,” a bouncy, infectious amalgam of Brit pop, Texas pop and Cajun two-step powered by Augie Meyers’ incredibly cheesy Vox Continental organ. Although “Sir Douglas” Sahm was Texas born and bred, with deep roots in country, rhythm and blues, and other Texas music styles, legendary New Orleans producer Huey Meaux, Jr. prevailed upon Sahm to pretend to be part of the British Invasion in a bid to get a hit. It worked.
The Sir Douglas Quintet appeared on its way to stardom, but got detoured in 1966, which is where Joe Arpaio comes in. At the time, Arpaio was agent in charge of the Bureau of Narcotic Drugs’ San Antonio office, and when he got a tip that Sahm and band member Frank Morin were carrying marijuana on a flight to Corpus Christi, Arpaio arranged for federal narcs and local cops to meet them at the airport.
It wasn’t exactly a big bust—Sahm and Morin were each nailed with “a tobacco can” full of the devil weed—but even a small-time pot bust in Texas in the 1960s was a big deal, as Lee Otis Johnson could attest. Johnson, a black student activist, was nailed in 1968 for giving a joint to a cop in Houston and sentenced to 30 years in prison. (The sentence was later overturned, but still.)
Not a big bust, but enough to derail the Sir Douglas Quintet, temporarily putting the kibosh on its touring plans, and ultimately inducing the band to hightail it out of Texas, shed the British affectation and relocate to the much friendlier climes of San Francisco and Northern California.
That led to a second round of popularity for the band, and a second hit, about a Northern California county that was becoming a popular destination for hippies fleeing the big city and that would become famous for its role in the American marijuana scene.
The Sir Douglas Quintet never again had a hit that big, but Sahm was well on his way to becoming a Texas music legend. Although the Quintet disbanded, Sahm and Augie Meyers continued to collaborate, and Sahm continued to release rock, blues, Tex-Mex, Cajun, country, and pop-inflected albums through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. He also joined Meyers, Tex-Mex accordion king Flaco Jimenez, and Hispanic country crooner Freddy Fender (born Baldomar Huerta) in the Texas music supergroup the Texas Tornadoes.
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I would occasionally chat with Sahm as he and Augie and sometimes Freddy Fender chilled out between Thursday night sets at the Hole in the Wall on the Drag in Austin. I loved his attitude and his music. And I really liked that “Free Baldomar Huerta” graffiti somebody painted on the side of the club, a reference to a 1960 bust involving six grams of weed that ended with Fender serving time in Louisiana.
Joe Arpaio did his best to bring down a budding Texas legend, but he failed. Doug Sahm died of a heart attack at a hotel in Taos in 1998, but his legacy lives on, while Joe Arpaio is reduced to being an angry loser. The two men symbolize two conflicting visions of America—one harsh, authoritarian and intolerant; the other mellow, fun- and freedom-loving and inclusive. Arpaio wanted a Texas where the law was enforced with a firm hand, especially against people with the wrong skin color or hair style; Sahm wanted a Groover’s Paradise. The battle is still being waged.