Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block have a combined total of twenty years of on-the-ground reporting of Arizona’s painful immigration battles. Both authors covered the landmark Melendres racial profiling lawsuit against Sherrif Arpaio and subsequent legal troubles for the sheriff, in addition to Donald Trump’s controversial pardon that saved him. Driving While Brown is informed by lively observations, hundreds of public records, interviews with over one hundred people, and dozens of interviews with the main characters, Joe Arpaio, and one of his chief opponents, Lydia Guzman.
Q&A with Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block
Your book is coming out just months after Arizona, a conservative stronghold, helped elect Joe Biden president. What does Driving While Brown teach readers about this political shift?
When we first started working on this book five years ago, we did not know Arizona would wind up going blue in 2020. And yet, Driving While Brown shows how this political shift happened over time. The book explores how Arpaio and Arizona’s relentless immigration enforcement catalyzed a generation of Latino young people to become voters, activists and run for office. The grassroots organizing that emerged from that backlash was a key part of the state’s changing political landscape.
The book traces how previous decades of national immigration policies have impacted people on the ground in Maricopa County. As Biden vows to work on an immigration overhaul and reverse Trump-era policies, this book provides the context for how we got to this moment.
Driving While Brown documents a trail of white supremacy in Arizona, from the eugenics movement through the Trump presidency. How does your book help us understand the current political moment?
White supremacy still taints American immigration policy, but white supremacists themselves aren’t always visible. White supremacy ebbs and flows. It flourishes and gets tamped down, slithers underground, then flourishes again. Driving While Brown details the tragic human consequences of white supremacy in Arizona, and shows what it took to tamp down the most recent cycle kick started by Arpaio’s immigration sweeps.
Joe Arpaio’s Arizona was tattered and divided, known nationally for its racist state immigration laws and Arpaio’s racist law enforcement sweeps. It was a state of disgrace.
Donald Trump took a page from Arpaio’s Arizona. Thanks to Trump, Arizona-style white supremacy and far-right extremism have exploded across the nation, tearing the nation apart bit by bit, all the way from the initiation of the so-called Muslim ban through the 2021 Trump insurrection, white supremacy’s greatest onslaught since the American Civil War.
The Latino resistance that caused the defeat of Arpaio in Arizona, and the rejection of many xenophobic policies, showed the nation how one fearless and stubborn movement defeated a cycle of white supremacy in the streets, in the courts, and in the public square.
Extremist right-wing factions still exist in Arizona. But make no mistake, they’re losing political power. Fewer extremists are getting elected to the Arizona legislature. Many large businesses and industries in Arizona that once supported local Republican extremist politicians are now having second thoughts in the wake of the 2021 insurrection. Arizona sent two Democratic senators to Washington and cast its electoral votes for Biden. In this political moment, Driving While Brown shows how the Latino resistance to Arpaio changed Arizona, and offers hope to a nation struggling to defeat a cycle of white supremacy unleashed by the Trump presidency.
—Terry Greene Sterling
Tell us what inspired you to write this book, which follows how former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio became the country’s most famous immigration enforcer and the grassroots movement that organized against him?
Arpaio, as sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county, launched an unprecedented local immigration crackdown in 2007 which was emblematic of Arizona’s extreme state immigration policies. We were both intrigued by the untold story behind the landmark lawsuit Latino plaintiffs brought against Arpaio to stop his immigration-themed traffic stops that racially profiled Latino drivers and passengers.
We met in 2012 while covering the trial. Terry was reporting for magazine outlets, and I was working for public radio. As we watched the legal case continue to take unexpected twists, it felt we were witnessing history that had to be documented. Over time, the story only became bigger. Arpaio became an early supporter of President Donald Trump and then was later rescued by a Trump pardon when he was found guilty of disobeying court orders.
This story — about immigration fights, civil rights and one community’s attempt to dismantle discriminatory policing — was one we thought needed to be shared.
You followed former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for years as Arizona journalists and interviewed him extensively for this book. How did you get so much access to him?
One of the defining features of Arpaio’s 24-year tenure as Maricopa County sheriff, from 1993 to 2016, was his desire for media attention, and the impact that had on the policies he pursued. It is a theme that we write about at length in the book.
We both had interviewed Arpaio for various journalism assignments before we began working on Driving While Brown, and the book draws from some of Terry’s interviews that go back to 2009 with him and some of mine that go back to 2013. For this book, we simply requested time with him and showed up at his events — jail press conferences, speaking engagements, the 2016 Republican National Convention, etc. We wanted to understand his perspective, motivations and hear from his supporters what kept him in power so long.
This is not a biography of Joe Arpaio, though. How would you describe this book?
This book is a portrait of a community struggling through civil rights disputes that trace back to Arizona Territory in the wake of the Mexican-American War. We interviewed people of all walks of life on all sides of the immigration debate — including people who were personally impacted by Arpaio’s enforcement policies, his loyal supporters and fierce opponents. We also explore rifts in these movements and generational divides.
We were fascinated to learn that many of the Latino community members who banded together to stop Arpaio were shaped by earlier cycles of activism, including union fights in Arizona mining towns, resistance to the Eisenhower administration’s mass deportations, and the Chicano student movement at Arizona State University in the 1960s and 70s. The battle against Arpaio that began in the mid 2000s in Maricopa County also encouraged a younger generation, and many of them are now reshaping Arizona politics.
We feel indebted to all the people who spent time with us as we researched this book. There are countless others who also shaped this history, though space restraints meant we had to focus on just a subset.
One of the Arpaio opponents you follow closely is Lydia Guzman, tell us about her.
Lydia Guzman grew up in California as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and a Mexican-American father. When she was in her 20s in 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, which sought to deny public education, non-emergency health care and other public services to unauthorized immigrants. That was a pivotal moment for Guzman, who later became a key part of a coalition fighting Arpaio by finding plaintiffs to add to the lawsuit and answering a hotline from undocumented immigrants needing help.
Like so many grassroots activists, Guzman paid a steep price for her dedication to a cause: financial troubles, losing her home to foreclosure, divorce, and for a time, a strained relationship with her kids. We wanted the book to be an honest accounting of what the personal toll of this conflict was for all involved.
Driving While Brown takes readers on a lively journey into courtrooms, living rooms, and the streets, delivering surprising and counterintuitive portraits of a powerful American sheriff, his supporters, and the people who brought him down. What were the greatest challenges in researching and writing such a readable book?
Our greatest challenges all stemmed from wrapping our arms around our hefty research.
First we had to figure out an effective way to organize and share the material. Just to give you an idea, we shared all our interview and event notes, audio files, transcripts, photos, videos, newspaper clippings, and historical research.
After that, we created a timeline that has upwards of 4,500 entries.
Next, we winnowed the research down into chapters that tell the story through the hearts and souls of the people in the book.
One huge writing challenge centered on crafting a book that focuses on the victories, failures, sorrows, and joys of the people moving through the narrative and still delivers critically important context about policy, history, and court cases.
It took five years, many, many drafts, and a great deal of thought, discussion, and compromise.
But, in the end, we did it.
—Terry Greene Sterling
The book details quirky moments in the odd relationship between Joe Arpaio and Donald Trump. How do the two compare?
The similarities between Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio have long prompted Arizona activists to dub Trump the “National Arpaio.”
Arpaio himself often observes he and Trump were both born on Flag Day and share a certain fondness for the Frank Sinatra song, My Way.
Other similarities are darker. They’re both practiced populists who advanced themselves politically on the back of extreme immigration restrictionism. They appeal to the same conservative Republican voter base that includes, on its fringes, xenophobes, white supremacists, and disparate others who feel left out and want a cause to latch onto.
Both men had overbearing fathers and now fawn over autocrats. Trump, for example, heroizes Putin in the same way that Arpaio heroizes Trump.
The book chronicles Arpaio’s transition from Trump friend and role model to Trump devotee, and this progression takes on special significance as so many of us struggle to understand, in the wake of the 2021 insurrection, why so many Americans still support the former president.
Once, when covering a Trump rally prior to the 2016 presidential election, I captured a moment with my iPhone video camera. In this little video, a journalist asks Arpaio, who is surrounded by fans wearing red MAGA baseball caps, if he will donate money to the Trump campaign.
No, Arpaio answers, “I am donating myself.”
—Terry Greene Sterling
The book traces a century of racism in Arizona, not only against Mexican Americans, but against Mexican immigrants. Terry, you’ve lived in Arizona all your life. In what ways is this story personal to you?
I was born into a borderlands family with strong ties to both Mexico and the United States. My grandmother was of Mexican American heritage. She was orphaned at the age of ten, separated from her siblings and adopted by a White family that disparaged her Mexican ethnicity. Because of the pervasive racism against Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants in Arizona, which we document in the book, my grandmother passed herself off as “White” in order to survive. When she was a young woman, those with Mexican ethnicity were still lynched and reviled. “Mexicans” were not allowed to legally marry “Whites.” People like my grandmother were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods. They had substandard education and healthcare.
My grandmother escaped all of it, but paid a tragically high price. I get why she did it, she was a kid with no parents, separated from her siblings, thrown into an all-White world, and she had to survive. But even as an old lady, she was not comfortable with her true identity, and she was not comfortable with her assumed identity. Always on guard. Always quietly fearful of what could happen. Always anxious.
Interestingly, she chose to live and die in Sonora, a state in northern Mexico. I didn’t know her secret until I was an adult, but as a child I visited her often in Mexico, and envied my cousins who got to live there full time.
When you come from a borderlands family with that history, and you are blond and blue-eyed as I am, you hear things and see things that you wouldn’t otherwise see and hear. I witnessed many of the cycles of racism we detail in Driving While Brown. That racism perplexed me as a child because I felt so deeply it was wrong, and yet I didn’t understand why I felt so deeply it was wrong. And when I see that racism today, I am at once saddened and infuriated.
Because yea, it’s personal.
—Terry Greene Sterling
The book captures tense moments, like the harrowing confrontation between “USA! USA!” shouting Trump supporters and Latino activists. Did you ever feel you were in danger?
Donald Trump often disparaged journalists as fake-news-enemies-of-the-people during his rallies, encouraging his followers to bait us and worse. Whipped into emotional frenzies, some Trump supporters would surround the little area where journalists were corralled and berate us and throw things, like paper cups. No one hit me, or threw anything at me, but the level of rage was so palpable there were uncomfortable moments when I felt I was in danger.
Other than that, the only other moment I felt I was in danger involved pepper spray and Phoenix Police.
In 2017, after Trump was elected, I was covering the waning moments of a peaceful civil rights protest in downtown Phoenix, where Trump was holding a rally. I was sitting near a sidewalk, eating a granola bar, watching the multi-ethnic crowd slowly disperse. Out of the blue, I heard a weird sound, like a gun shooting bullets, ping-ping-ping-ping. My eyes and lungs burned. A minute or so later, tear gas poisoned the air.
The experience reinforced what I already knew and what the world learned again during the 2021 Trump insurrection—American law enforcement handles White and multi-ethnic protests very differently.
—Terry Greene Sterling