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The Best and Worst of Us


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In the face of natural disaster, the very best of humanity has been on display in Houston, Texas.

People formed human chains across floodwaters to reach a man in his submerged car and pull him to safety. Pictures went viral of police officers carrying kids through waist-deep water, of everyday people trudging through with beloved dogs in their arms, even as exhaustion and anguish overtook their faces.

As the waters rose, people outside the flood zones hitched up their boats and drove toward the flooding. Like the man from Texas City launching his plush ski boat into floodwaters still swelling from pouring rain who told a reporter, "I'm going to save some lives."

The staffs of the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Press (the area's daily and alternative weekly papers, respectively), themselves victims of this disaster, waded through contaminated flood waters to tell the stories of those desperately waiting for help and those arriving to offer it.

Some perished trying to save others. Houston Police Sgt. Steve Perez, 34 years in the department, drowned when he drove into a flooded underpass, heading toward the floodwaters and away from his home and family. Alonso Guillen, a 31-year-old DJ who'd moved to Texas from Mexico as a teenager, who borrowed a friend's boat to help pull survivors from Harvey's floodwaters. He and a friend — Tomas Carreon Jr. — drowned when that boat capsized around midnight on Aug. 30.

As the Journal went to press, the death toll surpassed 60.

Heartbreaking though it's been, Harvey has showcased the best of us as a nation, as communities and individuals helped those who couldn't help themselves. Our president, meanwhile, demonstrated the opposite in the hours before Harvey made landfall. As all eyes turned toward the storm, Donald Trump used the cloak of impending destruction to quietly announce — at 7 p.m. EST on a Friday — his pardon of Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County.

Reasonable minds can differ on immigration policy, the tax code and national security. But Trump's pardoning Arpaio was an undeniable trampling of the Constitution of the United States, and one cowardly timed for minimum political fallout.

Arpaio, who spent 24 years as sheriff of the Arizona county that is home to Phoenix and styled himself as "America's toughest sheriff" until he was voted out of office last year, was put under a federal court monitor due to a pattern of racial profiling that the U.S. Department of Justice deemed the worst in United States' history.

The man publicly referred to his county jail — which included a tent city out in the triple-digit heat — as a "concentration camp," and inmates there died at rates far beyond the national average. He publicly bragged about making the food as inedible as possible and ran an online "mug shot of the day" contest, allowing the public to cast votes. His jail had a webcam recording female inmates using a toilet that was reportedly linked to by several pornographic websites. Numerous lawsuits were filed and won over Arpaio's correctional officers assaulting inmates, the majority of whom were Latino.

This was not a state prison full of convicts but a county jail — where the bulk of the population is to be considered innocent until proven guilty while awaiting trial. Most are there because they cannot afford bail. (In one egregious case, a legal U.S. resident spent 13 days in Arpaio's jail after being pulled over for not using his turn signal before the case was dismissed.)

Back in 2005, Arpaio started regular immigration patrols in which his deputies stopped cars with Latino drivers or passengers to check their immigration status. Those who couldn't prove they were in the country legally were arrested. (Arpaio reportedly poured so many resources into these patrols his office couldn't afford to investigate more than 400 sex crimes cases, including many with child victims.) A federal judge deemed the patrols racial profiling and a constitutional violation. U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow, a George W. Bush appointee, ordered Arpaio to stop racially profiling and enforcing federal immigration law. For years, Snow offered repeated warnings. Arpaio did not heed them and — violating a federal court order — kept racially profiling and illegally trying to enforce federal law.

Federal prosecutors finally charged Arpaio with contempt in 2016 and he was found guilty in July. Unlike that man his deputies arrested for failing to use a turn signal in 2013, Arpaio was never taken into custody in this case. His mug shot was never taken. He never spent a night in jail. But he did face the prospect of a six-month sentence.

Then, as the rain fell and the waters rose in Texas, as heroes readied their boats and surveyed their neighborhoods to see who might need help in the hours and days to come, Trump wielded one of the great powers of his office to pardon Arpaio — one of his presidential campaign's first high-profile supporters — calling him an "American patriot." He did so knowing that tales of heroism and images of people of all backgrounds helping each other would dominate the news cycle, sparing him justified criticism for shielding a bigot and a serial civil rights violator from the power of the very rule of law he spent decades sworn to uphold.

There's no question, Hurricane Harvey has showcased the very best in us as a nation. The very worst, too. Nor is there any question that in the weeks, months and even years to come, it's up to each of us to display heroism and leadership in our local communities. This means helping and looking out for each other, believing in the rule of law and serving on juries.

The story of Arpaio's pardon hits close to home after a federal jury in McKinleyville ruled in favor of Daren Borges' family on Aug. 28, upholding the ideal that a society should be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members when they are in need of help (see "The Hollow Men"). If that's the measure, Houston will be judged kindly.

While we have little control over what happens in Washington or Arizona, we can control our own communities. We can look out for each other. We can lift each other up. Houston has set a fine example. Let's follow it.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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