Joe Arpaio talked about being accused of racism, his misdemeanor conviction in federal court, former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, the proposed border wall with Mexico, NFL protests and other topics in an at-times rambling news conference prior to his speech to the Fresno County GOP on Friday.
Arpaio, the 85-year-old former Arizona sheriff, said he has evidence of the “fake birth certificate” of former President Barack Obama, “which nobody is doing anything about. Why does the media always say it’s been debunked?”
When asked if he was serious, Arpaio said, “Of course I’m serious.” When a reporter said the document Arpaio referenced had been deemed by experts as fake, he said that his was the only law enforcement agency in the nation “to touch this.”
While Arpaio was speaking to reporters, protesters were gathered on an intersection nearby to express their support or opposition.
Flag-waving supporters of Arpaio were on the northwest corner of Phillip Avenue and Kings Canyon Road in southeast Fresno’s Sunnyside area, while those who oppose the former Maricopa County sheriff were on the northeast corner.
Police were initially at barricades set up closer to Sunnyside Events, where the Fresno County GOP fundraiser featuring Arpaio was held. They allowed only those with tickets to see Arpaio speak and media to drive past.
The ACLU mobile billboard truck that had been in town since Thursday arrived about 4:35 p.m., as more people arrived.
By 4:40 p.m., pro-Arpaio protesters were shouting, “Build that wall.”
“I’m here because I was born and raised here,” said Edward Lopez, 66, of Parlier, a retired truck driver who served in the Marines in 1968-72 . Lopez, who wore olive drab fatigues, stood with the anti-Arpaio protesters. “For someone to bring someone like this to the city is terrible. It’s like they want to classify all Mexicans the same, which they’re not.”
A man wearing a Make America Great Again cap who would only give his first name, Jacob, said he came to Fresno from the Bay Area to support Arpaio because “I’m here for the First Amendment. The former sheriff has a right to speak.”
In advance of the back-and-forth chanting, the pro-Arpaio group held a short group prayer.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said just after 5 p.m. that about 350 protesters were on the scene, and another group was at Kings Canyon and Clovis Avenue.
“We are trying to keep them separated. Some have come across” to verbally confront Arpaio’s supporters, Dyer said.
“Our goal is staying in the middle of them and keep the peace,” he said.
Police took steps to keep streets clear of protesters during the evening. By 8:15 p.m., more than 100 remained, mostly anti-Arpaio, who used bullhorns to get their messages across. But 15 minutes later, there were fewer than 20, some of whom were chatting and shaking hands with Dyer.
At the news conference earlier, Arpaio was asked about being accused of racism. “I’m not a racist, I was never found guilty of racial profiling, regardless of what you see in the newspaper every day,” he said.
As Maricopa County’s top lawman, Arpaio adopted the moniker of “America’s toughest sheriff,” housing inmates in tents during hot Arizona summers and dressing them in pink clothing. But criticism continued to grow over his tough-on-crime and tough-on-immigration tactics.
Arpaio was convicted by a federal judge of criminal contempt for violating a court order over his department’s questioning of Hispanic drivers and pedestrians during traffic stops. In addition to his July conviction, another federal judge ruled that his county jails failed to meet constitutional standards for inmates’ medical care, food or living quarters. Last month, President Donald Trump pardoned him.
He said his federal conviction on a contempt of court charge was because the judge hates him. “I’m not guilty. You’ll hear the real story soon,” he said.
“I ended up with a misdemeanor, like a barking dog (complaint),” Arpaio said, adding that he’s had only two parking tickets in his life.
“Everyone is bragging about the ‘criminal sheriff’,” he said.
Arpaio said he supports Trump’s call to end protests at NFL games. “I still get a chill when I hear the national anthem, and the flag does something to me,” he said.
He noted that protesters have a right to their opinion, and he to his own opinion, although they may not agree with him.
When people complain about Trump’s call to build a border wall, they fail to note the drug traffic that pours across the nation’s porous southern border, Arpaio said.
Congress needs to negotiate on issues such as the immigration, he said.
When asked about some in California pushing to declare it as a sanctuary state, Arpaio said he was unaware of it. “Come across legally, and everybody will be happy,” he said.
He said he was initially ready to stop playing a public role after leaving office but decided against it. Maricopa County voted him out of office in November 2016 after 24 years as sheriff.
“I’m going to keep fighting for the good of this country,” he said.
Fred Vanderhoof, chairman of the Fresno County Republican Party Central Committee, said “we’re disappointed” that several high-profile Republicans decided to skip the fundraiser and Arpaio’s speech.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, who is in Spain to view that country’s high-speed rail, had said he would not have attended Arpaio’s speech if he had been in town because of the former sheriff’s polarizing presence. “While he’s popular with some, Arpaio is a villain to others,” Brand told The Bee.