Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hate crimes and sundown towns

-- by Dave

Speaking of how those Confederate values are still alive and well in the South, I've been meaning to post about the recent torching of a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee:
The call came in to the Columbia, Tennessee 911 call center at 5:20 on the morning of February 9. A fire was raging at the Islamic Center. When local police arrived a few minutes later, they found the broken glass of a door and heavy dark smoke billowing out of a broken window. At the scene, the officers also discovered a black swastika painted on the front of the building, along with two black swastikas and "We run the wold" (sic) and "White Power" painted on the side.

Later the same day, law enforcement officers arrested three local residents: Eric Ian Baker, 32, Michael Corey Golden, 23, and Jonathan Edward Stone, 19. The three men are accused of using empty beer bottles filled with gasoline and rags to set fire to the storefront mosque. They face federal charges of unlawful possession of a destructive device and state charges of arson.

According to the criminal complaint filed in federal court, at least two of the perpetrators of the arson and vandalism of the mosque were Christian Identity Movement adherents. (See the affidavit here.)

Christian Identity is a racist and anti-Semitic religious doctrine which teaches that European whites and their American descendants are the Biblical "chosen people,” while Jews are the literal descendants of Satan and that people of color are subhuman. It has been the theological glue binding together neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan devotees, militia members and others into the white nationalist movement. (For more on Christian Identity, please check out the CNC publication, Christian Identity: An American Heresy ).

The affidavit also notes that Stone stated that “as a result of his participation in the fire of Islamic Center, he earned ‘two stripes’ from Baker, who is his sponsor in the Christian Identity Movement. Stone admitted to Special Agents that he is a member of the Christian Identity Movement, and that stripes or promotions are earned for committing acts of violence against ‘enemies.’” Additionally, Eric Ian Baker explained to the Special Agents that "what goes on in that building is illegal according to the Bible."

A comment in an earlier news report caught my eye:
Islamic leaders in Nashville were also surprised by the arson and vandalism.

"This is the first hate crime we have observed here in Middle Tennessee," said A.K.M. Fakhruddin, former president of the Islamic Center of Nashville. He said the Islamic Center has had support from the greater Nashville community since the mosque was built in the late 1970s.

I'm sure this is true, but it's also true that the hate-mongering against Muslims has been on the rise in recent years, which more often than not eventually translates into hate crimes committed by white supremacists. They are most likely to occur in places like Tennessee where the demographic profile of local communities is rapidly changing to include people of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds -- and simultaneously, places with a history of racial and ethnic cleansing.

Hate crimes, as we've explained on numerous occasions, are message crimes. They are intended to harm not just the immediate victim, but all people of that same class within the community. Their message is also irrevocable: they are "get out of town, nigger/Mexican/Jew/queer/Muslim" crimes.

And as I explained in Death on the Fourth of July, hate crimes like this are the direct descendant of the old racial terrorism practiced against African Americans and other minorities prior to the Civil Rights era: lynching, "race riots," "sundown towns," and other acts of racial and ethnic cleansing which either drove minorities from their midst or held them in utter subjection.

Tennessee, as it happens, is a place where this happened on a notable level. When journalist Elliot Jaspin set out to examine the twelve worst cases of ethnic cleansing in American history for his book Buried in the Bitter Waters: Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, two of them happened to be in the Volunteer State.

The earliest of the two was in Polk County in 1894. On April 27, a mob of about fifty armed men stormed into a black railroad labor camp with rifles and dynamite and chased the workers out:
It was a short-lived affair. ... The white workers surged forward, shouted to the blacks to leave, and then began peppering the camp with rifle fire. It was over in minutes. The defenseless black workers tumbled out of their tents, raed down the hill, across the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the Ocoee River. The darkness swallowed them as they fled.

The clash decisively settled the issue of black workers in Polk County. According to the 1890 census, 8,361 people lived in Polk County, 566 of them black. Ten years later only 303 African Americans remained, nestled in the relative safety of the western end of the county, protected by the mountain range from what awaited them if they ventured near the copper mines.

The legacy of this cleansing remains with us: In the most recent census, Polk County is 98 percent white. Only 0.4 percent of its population -- 22 people -- is African American.

The second cleansing that Jaspin details in Tennessee took place in Unicoi County, also in the state's eastern half, in 1918.

It began with a lynching -- and like many if not most such acts of murderous mob violence, its causes were dubious at best. The victim was a black laborer named Tom Devert who had been drinking and gambling with some fellow white laborers and had won their money. When the men tried to take it back by force, Devert ran and the white men gave chase. He came upon a local schoolgirl, tried to use her as a shield, and was shot crossing the river with her in tow; the girl wound up drowning. When onlookers gathered, the whites claimed that they had come upon Devert trying to choke the girl and so they defended her.

So Devert's body was dragged into the town square at Erwin and immolated, with other local blacks forced to witness the spectacle:
"The sodden body [of Devert] was dragged back to town the entire distance of a mile and a half," the Johnson City paper explained. "The crowd growing in size until it reached a mob." It was this mob that rousted the entire black population of Erwin and forced them to line up in front of a funeral pyre that the mob was building. "The negroes, among whom there were men, women, and children, were lined up in a row before the rapidly mounting pile of wood upon which was poured oil," goes the Bristol Herald Courier account of the immolation of Tom Devert. "Men with pistols, shotguns and clubs stood before the lined up negroes to prevent their running away and as the last cross tie and the last dash of oil was thrown on the heap, one of the mob is reported to have turned to the cowering crowd and said, 'Watch what we are going to do here and if any of you are left in town by tomorrow night, you will meet the same fate.'" The mob lit the pyre and threw Devert's body onto it. Now, the cry went up to burn the Negro quarter.

Eventually the mob was talked down and there was no more violence. But the entire black population was gone by the next day.

And so it remains in Unicoi County. Today, in the most recent census, its racial makeup is 97.96 percent white. Out of a population of over 17,000, only 12 black people -- 0.07 percent -- remain.

That's how hate crimes are intended to work -- and generally, they do so very well when, as in the historic cases, the community openly backs the haters. That does not happen nowadays -- but silence on the part of the community is often interpreted as tacit approval anyway. It will be interesting to see what steps Columbia's civic leaders take to stand up for the Muslims in their midst now. (Local columnist Dwight Lewis' superb piece on the incident is a good start.)

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