Saturday, November 12, 2016

When Obama Was Elected: An Outpouring of Hate in 2008

Klansman Randy Gray, protesting Obama's election in November 2008 in suburban Detroit

I'm in the middle of writing my manuscript, Alt America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (due out this summer from Verso Books) and I wanted to share this excerpt (derived from previously published text) to remind people that what is happening now with regard to the recent outbreak of hate crimes is starkly reminiscent of what happened immediately after Barack Obama's election in 2008.

And yes, I'm offering this somewhat in repudiation of the Trump defenders who are angry about anti-Trump protesters taking to the streets immediately after Trump's election without "giving him a chance." It's true that it took several more months before we saw "Impeach Obama" and "Where's The Birth Certificate" signs showing up at Tea Party rallies, but then, it did take awhile before the Koch Brothers and other corporate sponsors who footed the bill for those events to get their acts together. (And no, there is not a scintilla of evidence that George Soros is funding the current anti-Trump rallies.)

This is what happened immediately after Barack Obama's election. See if it sounds like anything happening currently.


On the day Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, much of the nation – particularly those who supported and voted for him – celebrated the election of the first African American to the country’s highest office. For those who voted for his opponent, John McCain, there was naturally the usual bitterness and disappointment.

Among a certain subset of those Americans, however – especially those who opposed Obama precisely because he sought to become the nation’s first black president – it went well beyond the usual despair. For them, November 5, 2008, was the end of the world. Or at least, America as they knew it.

So maybe it wasn’t really a surprise that they responded that day with the special venom and violence peculiar to the American Right.

Like the noose strung in protest from a tree limb in Texas. Students at Baylor University in Waco discovered the noose hanging from a campus tree the evening of Election Day, near a site where angry Republican students had gathered a bunch of Obama yard signs and burned them in a big bonfire. That same evening, a riot nearly broke out when Obama supporters, chanting the new president’s name, were confronted by white students outside a residence hall who told them: “Any nigger who walks by Penland (Hall), we're going to kick their ass, we're going to jump him." The Obama supporters stopped and responded, "Excuse me?" Somehow they managed to keep the confrontation confined to a mere shouting match until police arrived and broke things up.

Then there were the students on the North Carolina State University campus in Raleigh, who spent Election Night spray-painting such fun-loving messages about Obama as “Let's shoot that Nigger in the head” and “Hang Obama by a noose.” The N.C. State administration was so upset by this behavior that it protected the students’ identities and refused to take any legal action against them or discipline them at all.

But those were just warm-ups from the student cheering section. The real thugs, exemplars of the dark side of the American psyche, were shortly making their mark.

That night, four young white men from Staten Island “decided to go after black people” in retaliation for Obama’s election. They first drove to the mostly black Park Hill neighborhood and assaulted a Liberian immigrant, beating him with a metal pipe and a police baton, in addition to the usual blows from fists and feet. Then they drove to Port Richmond, where they assaulted another black man and verbally threatened a Latino man and a group of black people. They finished up the night by attempting to drive next to a man walking home from his job as a Rite Aid manager – he was actually white, but this crew of geniuses managed to misidentify him as a black man – and club him with the police baton. Instead, they simply hit him with their car, throwing him off the windshield and into a coma for over a month.

All four of these men wound up convicted of hate crimes and would spend the duration of Obama’s first term in prison.

In Midland, Michigan, the day after the election, a discarded Ron Paul activist named Randy Gray (he had been peremptorily dismissed from the Paul campaign when his white-supremacist activism was revealed) stalked the sidewalk in the middle of a heavily trafficked intersection in town, dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, waving an American flag. He also was toting a handgun. Police approached and talked to him, but let him continue his display after he told them it had nothing to do with Obama winning the presidency.

A busful of schoolkids in Rexburg, Idaho, started chanting “Assassinate Obama” just to tease the tiny minority of their fellow schoolkids who were Obama supporters. In Rexburg – where the population is over 90 percent Mormon – that’s about three kids in the entire school. District officials didn’t discipline the children who had led the chants, but it did send out a letter to their parents reminding them that students are to be told such behavior is unacceptable.

Then there were the arsons.

On election night, a black family in South Ogden, Utah, came home from volunteering at their local polling station to discover that their American flag had been torched.

The morning after the election, in Hardwick Township, New Jersey, a black man taking his eight-year-old daughter to school emerged from his front door to discover someone had burned a six-foot-tall cross on his lawn – right next to the man’s banner declaring Obama president. It had been torched too.

Another cross was burned on the lawn of the only black man in tiny Apolacon Township, Pennsylvania, the night after the election. A black church in Springfield, Massachusetts, was also burned to the ground the night of the election; eventually, three white men were arrested and charged with setting the fire as a hate crime.

And if the election itself wasn’t enough to bring the haters out of the woodwork, there was always Obama’s inauguration on January 21, 2009.

Two days before the big event, arsonists in Forsyth County, Georgia, set fire to the home of a woman who was known as a public supporter of Obama. Someone painted a racial slur on her fence, along with the warning, “Your black boy will die.”

On inauguration day, someone taped newspaper articles featuring Obama onto the apartment door of a woman in Jersey City, New Jersey, and set fire to it. Fortunately, the woman had stayed home to watch the inauguration on TV and smelled the burning, and she was able to extinguish the fire before it spread. If only she could have done the same for the hate that sparked the act.

The day after, a large 22-year-old skinhead named Keith Luke decided it was time to fight the “extinction” of the white race, so he bashed down the door of a Latino woman and her sister and shot them both; one died. Police cornered and arrested Luke before he could pull off the next planned stage of his shooting rampage, which was to have taken place at a local Jewish synagogue towards which he was driving when arrested. According to the DA, Luke intended to “kill as many Jews, blacks, and Hispanics as humanly possible ... before killing himself.” When he appeared in court a month later, Luke had carved a swastika into his forehead with a razor blade.

But the pain and violence inflicted by these haters was just beginning.

In all, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 200 “hate-related” incidents around the election and inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president.

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