Lone protester has spent 8 years painting to protest Arpaio

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Rob McElwain holds up his favorite currently displayed sign for the day. (Nicole Neri/DD)
Rob McElwain holds up his favorite currently displayed sign for the day. (Nicole Neri/DD)

For three to four hours per day, five days per week for the past eight years, Rob McElwain has sat at the corner of First Avenue and Washington Street with hand painted signs to protest Sheriff Joe Arpaio and more recently, Donald Trump. That makes at least 6,240 hours spent on the street corner.

“I just mock him every chance I can get,” McElwain said about Arpaio. “Just anything I can do to try to reflect back in a humorous way what he’s doing.”

Joe Arpaio’s office used to be located inside of the Wells Fargo plaza, which is why McElwain made it his home base there.

Bike Barn, a local cycling shop, gives McElwain bicycle boxes to paint on, and he gets 50-cent samples of latex paint from a Home Depot. Armed with these supplies, he spends about 5-10 hours per week painting signs, on top of the three to four hours per day he spends on the street corner.

Rob McElwain painted this sign after reading that Sheriff Joe Arpaio was complaining people were defacing his signs, and the picture with the article showed a “Re-elect Sheriff Joe Arpaio” sign with a circle and X over it. “So I mocked it,” McElwain said. (Nicole Neri/DD)
Rob McElwain painted this sign after reading that Sheriff Joe Arpaio was complaining people were defacing his signs, and the picture with the article showed a “Re-elect Sheriff Joe Arpaio” sign with a circle and X over it. “So I mocked it,” McElwain said. (Nicole Neri/DD)

McElwain said for the past eight years, people have shared their stories and opinions with him and people stop take pictures in front of his signs every day.

“It‘s an abysmal situation, and it’s unique,” McElwain said. “Reporters are lulled into Arpaio’s folksy old manner, you know, ‘oh I was a cop back in Las Vegas when Elvis was there,’ all this crap, you know. He’s the bright shiny object for all the local reporters. But every country you can imagine have reporters that come here, and they’re aware of what’s happening with Joe Arpaio, the cruelty…Reporters from all over the world have interviewed me from this street corner.”

McElwain used to have a group of people protesting along with him, but McElwain is the last man standing and has been for the past eight years. He started using multiple signs because he felt that, as a lone protester, he needed the attention and said one man alone can’t stand shouting on the street.

The Trump signs have caught the eyes of people passing by, like a man named Nick Allen who paused on the corner to take a picture of a sign hung from the traffic light post.

“This is freedom of speech,” Allen said, “and Trump is decisive, but I think he’s not a unifier. I think he’ll really divide the nation and in that respect, he’s a very dangerous man.”

McElwain said the city has tried to ban him from putting signs on public property, such as the traffic light posts. He obeyed this for some time, but said he eventually had too many signs, so he had to hang some up.

McElwain speaks to a passerby who compliments his work. (Nicole Neri/DD)
McElwain speaks to a passerby who compliments his work. (Nicole Neri/DD)

McElwain’s main focus is Arpaio, but about a year and a half ago, he began mocking Trump, as well.

“When you hear something ridiculous, you can’t avoid it,” McElwain said. “I mean, he’s been ridiculous for forever. I know people that like them, I don’t understand their thought process.”

 

Hannah Horner (left) and Alex Colberg (right) pause to photograph McElwain’s signs as possible material for a book they are currently writing. (Nicole Neri/DD)
Hannah Horner (left) and Alex Colberg (right) pause to photograph McElwain’s signs as possible material for a book they are currently writing. (Nicole Neri/DD)

Hannah Horner and Alex Colberg stopped in front of McElwain, kneeling to photograph the signs with cameras. They paused here in a journey to all 50 states, during which they are writing and photographing for a book. McElwain’s signs may become a part of it.

“I just think they’re hilarious,” Colberg said.

Horner was particularly drawn to one sign, which read “Donald Trump: I’m a loser/that I can tell you.”

“I hate Donald Trump with a passion. I hope he just becomes a complete loser, like he is, and falls off the face of the earth,” Horner said.

McElwain uses his bounty of signs to shade himself from the harsh afternoon sun. His main focus is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, but in light of the election, he brought out his wealth of Donald Trump material. (Nicole Neri/DD)
McElwain uses his bounty of signs to shade himself from the harsh afternoon sun. His main focus is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, but in light of the election, he brought out his wealth of Donald Trump material. (Nicole Neri/DD)

McElwain said that didn’t plan to become so involved in this project, but said “now it’s sort of (his) schtick.”

After eight years, he’s unsure what he will do after Election Day, but said he would still be on the corner Tuesday. There will always be officials to criticize, but none at the caliber of Arpaio and Trump, he said.

“I doubt if I’ll ever find another Joe Arpaio,” he said. “But since this is what I’ve found myself doing, I hope to continue finding foes.”

Clarification: November 8, 2016

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story implied that the city has tried to prevent McElwain from protesting with multiple signs. It has been restructured and updated to show that the act of hanging signs on public property, such as traffic lights, is what the city has tried to ban.

Contact the reporter at Nicole.Neri@asu.edu.

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