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Posse Comitatus

A newsletter about sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement
Ex-Sheriff Richard Mack, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association samples a vitamin supplement in an advertorial video on the CSPOA homepage.

The Smoothie Sheriffs: Why are sheriffs selling vitamins?

In August, Sheriff Ken Mascara of Florida described his personal regimen for treating COVID-19 as “a treatment of high doses of vitamin C and zinc.” He described his self-treatment to a reporter:
“Every morning I got up, and I drank Natalie’s orange juice with 30 milligrams of zinc,” Mascara said.
He drank Gatorade mixed with powdered vitamin C during the day, and in the evenings took a zinc pill and a baby aspirin to help thin the blood to hopefully prevent blood coagulation in the lungs.
He later adds that his pharmacist prescribed him quinine and said it would be effective. (Quinine is not effective for COVID-19.) The sheriff also touted his exercise regime as vital to his recovery and said that, while he takes coronavirus seriously, he insists the “cure is different for everybody.” (There is no cure.)
Over the past week, several California sheriffs, mostly in SoCal and the Central Valley, have publicly stated their opposition to the new health measures put in place by California Governor Newsom to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many speak in broad sweeps about personal responsibility and choice, affiliated with a vague notion of liberty. As Sheriff Bianco says in a recent tweet, “I make sure my immune system is firing on all cylinders.”
Others have also joined the anti-vaxxer movement (affiliated with white supremacy, as The Daily Beast points out) by questioning COVID-19 vaccines. Sheriff Chad Bianco of Riverside County claimed that he would “never take” a COVID-19 vaccine and quibbled with medical experts over how widespread the virus was, calling them “unbelievably faulty” in his 3-minute screed posted last week.
Like Sheriff Mascara, some sheriffs have gone even further, making scientifically false statements about the efficacy of masks or the healing quality of untested cures, like vitamin C, zinc, and quinine (consumed as tonic water; gin optional). Even the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officer Association has gotten in on the action, with ex-Sheriff Richard Mack touting herbal cures by Global Healing, whose website looks like every quasi-nutritional healing website with ads in Yoga Journal. (The founder is a chiropractor.) “Remember back when all of this pandemic supposedly started,” Mack says. “The CDC recommended vitamins…they even said to go outside, but in some places, you can’t even go outside….This is a hundred times better than any mask could ever be.”
So-called natural cures are popular on both the populist left and the populist right as a form of protest against elite medical professionals and institutions. The medical institutions in this country have a history of racist and discriminatory behavior. But, this isn’t really the basis of the sheriffs’ populism. Their populism is rooted in the rise of the right, in an American-Constitutional-Christianity where individual choice trumps environmental conditions or genetics. The current form of anti-science proffered by elected sheriffs also mirrors the attitudes of the Trump administration and the Republican party towards pandemics and global warming.
The anti-science sheriffs are all the more troubling when you consider the role of sheriffs in healthcare, particularly for those individuals in their custody, housed at local jails. Sheriffs are quick to blame those in jail for their vulnerability to COVID-19, arguing that they have “weakened immune systems” because of drug use. Yet, it is these same sheriffs who have created the conditions within these jails where people are getting sick and dying. They have done this through their own deliberate indifference and the need to economize jail healthcare and drive down costs. The financial ties between sheriffs and healthcare are real, as evidenced in part by the fact that the National Sheriff Association took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a lobbying group to have real live sheriffs testify in support of laws stopping the importation of prescription drugs.
This raises another tenet of populism. In addition to eschewing elite decision-makers, populist sheriffs are also relying on racist signifiers that give legalistic cover to their actions. Consider the difference between the callous treatment of anti-racism protestors compared to anti-mask or pro-gun protests. Largely white, anti-government protestors are “express[ing] their opinions” and seen as non-threatening while anti-racist protestors “terrorize” and threaten the safety of those same well-meaning families (always coded as white and middle class – the “suburban” women and their children). Anti-racist protestors embody racially-coded disorder and chaos, giving sheriffs a colorblind shorthand to contrast the well-meaning people who should not be treated as “coronavirus criminals” (a sheriff who says he is “not going to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens.”) with “the criminals that are committing actual crimes.”
Sheriff populism isn’t a monolith, and there are regional differences that should probably be considered. In California, particularly, the more conservative Central Valley politicians have long waged ideological war against the more liberal state legislature and governor’s office. The recent changes to California’s laws to decrease mass incarceration – many of which were ratified through the popular vote – have long angered law enforcement groups in the state. Groups like the California State Sheriffs' Association actively lobbied to pass legislation that would crawl back these reforms, but they have been unsuccessful. Over time, this impotent rage has bubbled over into social issues, ranging from complaints against newly-elected progressive District Attorneys to rebellions against the Democratic governor.
I reached out to the National Sheriff Association (a national organization that represents sheriff interests and endorsed Trump in 2020) to see if they had issued recommendations to sheriffs in terms of enforcing health ordinances or if they had any comment about sheriffs flouting executive orders. They did not respond. I also called the California State Sheriffs’ Association but got no reply.

Orange County Jail Ordered to Release People

Last week, a judge ordered Orange County, California, Sheriff Don Barnes to reduce the jail population by 50% in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The lawsuit, which was filed by medically vulnerable defendants being held in the Orange County jail and represented by the ACLU, set forth undisputed evidence that the jail was not properly set up to protect the people inside from contracting coronavirus. Sheriff Barnes's defense is based on the idea that, as the court says, “he has taken reasonable and adequate steps to create as safe an environment as is reasonably possible.”  But, the court points out (and the sheriff does not contest) that the measures Sheriff Barnes has taken are inadequate.
Jessica Pishko @jesspish 
Hate it? Love it? Email me at jesspish at
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