Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Scaping the goat

Four weekends ago I was in Bellingham, a college town near the Canadian border up in Whatcom County, taking part in a researchers' workshop and subsequent panel discussion about the Minutemen. The local organizers assembled a pretty impressive panel, including my old friend Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community's Building Democracy Initiative, who has become a national expert on the Minutemen; as well as Marc Brenman, director of the state human rights commission.

Opinions were many and diverse, but one thing I think every panelist agreed on was this: The Minutemen represent the spear point -- the opening public-relations foray, as it were -- in a larger effort by right-wing extremists to scapegoat and demonize Latino immigrants, legal and otherwise.

The unspoken question that hovered over all the discussions was one I don't think any of us could answer: Where is that campaign taking us as a nation?

Half a world away, events were occurring that same weekend that illustrated, in disturbing fashion, just where things could go:

As I discussed previously, the anti-immigrant riots in Australia were fomented by the white-nationalist Australia First Party, which presents itself in mainstream guise (it has numerous members both in Parliament and various local and regional councils) while promoting a nakedly racist "programme." They fired up the Cronulla Beach riots in conjunction with a loose network of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

A New York Times piece provided one of the best explanations I've read on how the situation in Australia came to pass, particularly the context of growing racial agitation aimed at immigrants:
Several recent events have made this latest eruption of racism and xenophobia different from those of the past. While denying even that racism exists, our leaders have given tacit approval and support for it through policy, whether this is policy on refugees, security or Indigenous affairs. The policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers was strongly linked with border protection from 2001, and, as most asylum seekers of recent years have been from the Middle East and Muslim South Asia, "border protection" has become protection from Muslim refugees in the popular imagination.

Like the United States, Australia has new anti-terrorism legislation, first passed in 2002 and significantly strengthened just recently. Such laws have helped to validate broader community mistrust of Arab and Muslim Australians.

Our government has done little to substantively allay fear of Muslim and Middle Eastern Australians generally or to increase public understanding and appreciation of their culture and contribution to Australian life. Arabic is the fourth most commonly used language after English in Australia, and the most commonly used language after English in New South Wales, Sydney's home state, yet it is taught in only a handful of schools and universities.

In the last five years there has also been evidence of an increase in violence toward people of Arab appearance. An Iraqi writer I know begged his wife and daughter to stop wearing the hijab because of the potential of violence on the street. An Afghan refugee taxi driver in Adelaide said to my partner last night that he thought he would have to quit because his younger passengers were so nasty. In recent years high-profile cases in which Arab-Australian youths were charged with violent crimes generated a storm in the news media, as well as unchecked vilification on talk radio.

Prejudice creates what it fears by curtailing young people's prospects. Young Arab-Australians are increasingly ghettoized in Sydney's poor suburbs, where they struggle for education and jobs. Their families are often prejudiced against non-Arab Australians; the racism of the minority and that of the broader society reinforce each other.

I have Muslim friends who used to feel that they were Australians, but now cannot identify themselves in the negative space created for them in our community. I have non-Muslim friends who are furious at being mistaken for Muslims because of their Middle Eastern background; they are doing all they can to differentiate themselves from people they too are starting to openly dismiss. It has become fashionable, perhaps, to be racist, although none of us, not even our prime minister, is willing to call it what it is.

We can readily see a similar pattern of anti-immigrant sentiment growing in the United States -- not quite as much toward Arabs and Muslims -- though that, of course, is also a significant component, particularly among the "war on terror" set -- but more toward Latinos, particularly under the guise of being against illegal immigration. The vilification of immigrants is especially notable on right-wing talk radio, with Michael Savage, as always, leading the way. The LGF/Malkin component of the blogosphere, naturally, has been similarly eager to make scapegoats of brown people.

The Australian press later reported that the bulk of the neo-Nazis who were involved in the Cronulla Beach riots had been festering and growing, under cover of whiteness, in the Sydney suburbs, which appears to be their base nationally as well. In the USA, the same precursor can be found in the suburbs and exurbs where, quietly, white supremacists increasingly are just blending in and spreading their agenda.

We also know that, in the 21st century, the leading edge of white-supremacist agitation has focused on immigrant bashing. Not only do they see it as the most fertile ground for recruitment, it also has proved -- via the Minutemen -- a significant means of repositioning themselves and their agenda out of the fringe and into the mainstream.

There was already abundant evidence that the Minutemen were primarily a public-relations stunt aimed at planting the idea in the public's mind that Latino immigrants crossing the border were the source of a broad range of social ills, particularly crime and "cultural pollution." But this fact became unmistakable when the Minutemen brought their campaign to Washington state this fall -- an event that precipitated the gathering of researchers and activists in Bellingham last month.

After all, there isn't exactly a problem on the Canadian border with illegal immigrants. The only border-security issue there of any note is one of drug runners bringing goods over the border -- and most of those crossings occur either at official ports of entry through surreptitious means, or in the stretches of mountainous wilderness well to the east of where the Whatcom Minutemen were doing their thing.

As the continuing fluff pieces in the Bellingham Herald -- a clueless and hapless news organization that couldn't even see fit to run notice of the anti-Minuteman gathering, let alone send a reporter to it -- inadvertently demonstrate, not a single would-be illegal border crossing has been prevented by the Minutemen. However, it's become obvious to local retailers in Whatcom County that the traditional traffic they get from Canadian shoppers -- many of them brown-skinned -- who cross the border to sample the wares at places like Bellis Fair Mall has been radically curtailed since the Minutemen began toting guns along the border. (Hate, as always, is bad for business -- even if Chamber organs like the Herald are a little slow to recognize that fact.)

What was clear to those of us on the panel was that Minutemen were revealed primarily as a publicity stunt whose chief purpose is to pave the way for a larger political campaign aimed primarily at demonizing Latinos and using them as a wedge issue to push the public into supporting a wide range of planned anti-immigrant policy measures. In Washington state, for instance, a "Protect Washington Now" initiative -- modeled directly after the successful "Protect Arizona Now" measure -- is reportedly in the works for the coming election year.

It's happening everywhere -- in the Northwest, in California, in the Midwest, in the South, even in pockets in the Northeast. What's important to understand is that much of this agitation is taking place under the radar, by well-financed organizations who operate through focus groups and "think tanks." Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman described just such an operation taking place recently in Minnesota under less-than-upfront circumstances:
The woman moderator, who said she was from Maryland, wanted very much to talk about immigrants. The participants already had discussed any issues they were concerned about, except the war in Iraq. There would be no talk about Iraq, the woman said. But up to that point, no one had mentioned immigration, much to the annoyance of the moderator. So she prodded the group to complain about immigrants.

"I haven't heard anybody talk about immigration," Peoples, an independent, recalls her saying. "Anybody have a problem with the illegal aliens coming in?"

The group's response to the question was "a deafening silence," Peoples says. But the woman pushed harder, listing some of the complaints she said she had heard in other states where she had conducted focus groups. Still, no one obliged her. Instead, Peoples mentioned the immigrant workers in a nearby town, praising them for how hard they seem to work.

Not the correct answer. Someone was paying money for this. They wanted problems.

"She shut me off," Peoples recalls. "Then she said, 'Aren't you having problems here?' "

The state Republican and DFL parties each deny having sponsored the mystery focus group, as does the Republican congressman for the area, Gil Gutknecht, and his DFL challenger, Tim Walz. Also in denial mode was the office of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who recently poured gasoline on the immigrant issue with the release of a crudely overstated report designed to inflame opinion and make immigration into a wedge issue.

That last bit was opinion. But this is fact: Anti-immigration forces are working hard to raise resentment and to exploit immigration for political gain, cozying up to politicians who will help them fence the borders.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is the big picture: the anti-immigrant push really represents a significant incursion of right-wing extremism into mainstream conservatism. Each is busy empowering the other, with the end result being an American right pushed even farther to the right.

Take it from D.A. Kodolenko at San Diego CityBeat:
What’s in a name? Sometimes a hell of a lot. Simcox and Gilchrist claim that their Minutemen “have no affiliation with, nor… accept any assistance by or interference from separatists, racists or supremacy groups or individuals,” but that’s lip service, public relations, a scam—and some mainstream media and right-wing politicians have fallen for it. They quote Sam Adams and paste illustrations of American revolutionaries on their website, sidestepping nearly a century of border-patrolling, immigrant-bashing, like-minded, bloodthirsty Nazis calling themselves Minutemen, as if they could start over fresh with the same name -- not to mention tactics -- and supposedly expunge it of its racist heritage.

But names gain their meaning in real, not ideal, contexts. Nobody would believe your swastika tattoo represented a lucky Indian sun sign if you were a white, jack-booted, skinhead leader of an Oi! band. Think a Muslim political party could call itself “Al-Qaeda, but not that Al-Qaeda?” It just means “foundation,” right? Wrong. It means flying planes into buildings in the same way Minutemen means harassing and attacking people at the border. Names, words, symbols and signs get wrecked. Ignoring their history is disingenuous.

Arvin Hill seems to have noticed that as well:

Hill was among the many counter-protesters who recently took to the streets to oppose one of the recent forays in the anti-immigrant campaign, namely, their attempt to organize "Stop the Invasion" protests at various locales around the country. As it turned out, those protests actually drew very few participants:
The so-called "Stop the Invasion" protests were organized in 19 states, demanding the government increase border security and penalize employers who hire illegal workers.

"We are keeping the debate on illegal immigration in the forefront of the American consciousness," said Joseph Turner of Save Our State, who was among about two dozen protesters who waved American flags outside a home-supply store in a Los Angeles suburb.

But Turner's group in Glendale was surrounded by more than 100 drum-beating supporters who chanted, "Racists go home." The two groups traded shouts and obscene gestures for more than an hour. One man was arrested for assault, police said.

In Farmingville, N.Y., where immigration-related violence erupted several times in recent years, only about a dozen protesters showed up and argued against the growing number of day laborers on eastern Long Island.

From the presence of these voices, I think, we can draw heart that scenes like what we saw in Australia may yet be avoided here in America. But in the coming months, we will need many more of them.

[Note: At the Bellingham conference, I presented a long informational paper on the Minutemen. I'm going to be posting that paper -- which features a lot of information already published here -- in a series of posts here at Orcinus over the coming week.]

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