Thursday, June 9, 2011

Just like old times in Georgia

From “hurt feelings,” bruised egos, and white men and woman arguing about who is the superior being, we go to the grotesque reality of deliberate dehumanization:

“Hordes of grasping, pushing foreigners who are stealing jobs from American workmen and bread from American homes. It is to combat this peril, to preserve and protect standards of living which made American workmen the envy of the world that we, the challengers, have raised our rallying cry, 'America for Americans.' The problems has got beyond the point where the American workman can cope with it alone. He needs guidance, solidarity and expert advise on the subject of protecting his job. We, the challengers, are organized to provide that solidarity and advise. Ours is an organization. It is an organization of which it might be said, ‘He who is not with us is against us.’ The choice, my friends, is a simple one. Do you want our red, white and blue flag replaced by the vile banner of anarchy? The time has come when we must realize what is going on in this great land of ours. When the real, hundred percent American must stop and think.”

Sound vaguely familiar? How about this?

“In mighty multitudes, they have swarmed to our shores to take refuge under the protection of the greatest government on Earth. And how have they rewarded the fine, generous, liberty-loving people who opened to them their hearts, their homes and their horizons of opportunity? I will tell you how. With the basest ingratitude and the vilest of treachery. Spurning American ideals and the sacred principles for which our forefathers fought they have clung tenaciously to their alien doctrines, foreign faiths and un-American morals. Like poisonous vipers, they have patiently bided their time while they've fed on the bosom of our country. Now enriched with the jobs they have chiseled away from Americans and drunk with the power of their stolen prosperity they are plotting to seize control of our government, overthrow our glorious republic and subjugate the American people to their own dastardly designs. Standing alone, you and I are helpless to defend ourselves against this deadly peril. Helpless to protect our homes and families from the menace that threatens. But if we unite with millions of other red-blooded Americans, we are invincible. With fire and sword, we will purge the land of these traitorous aliens and throttle their every deadly scheme till once more, our beloved stars and stripes will wave over a united nation of free, white, 100 percent Americans!”

Changing the “shores” to “borders,” we can hear variations of this rhetoric any day on right-wing talk radio or Fox News; what that really means in effect is that this kind of extremist hate talk has emerged from the cesspool of hate groups to “mainstream” status. The above commentary is from an obscure 1937 film called the “Black Legion” starring Humphrey Bogart, based on the real-life off-shoot of the Ku Klux Klan that had a brief existence during the worst of the Great Depression. Bogart’s Frank Taylor wasn’t really a hater; he just had a bad habit of feeling sorry for himself. He chuckles at the silliness of the secret knocks when he arrives at a Legion meeting; later at his induction, he is obviously uncomfortable reading the violent tripe that is the group’s oath of allegiance. Nevertheless, he at first thrills at the opportunity to vent his frustration about not landing that foreman job given to a more studious immigrant; within the safety of group-think he helps vandalize and burn homes and businesses, and beating anyone who isn’t “100 percent American.” The “grand wizard” of the outfit, perhaps needless to say, can’t wait to expand the Legion’s membership—not for ideological reasons, but because more members means more cash in his pocket from dues and fees. When Taylor’s best friend threatens to expose him and the Legion to the police unless he shapes-up, Taylor—knowing that his new “friends” would kill him if tried to leave the group—arranges for his real friend to be subjected to whipping but instead shoots him when he tries to escape. Taylor is arrested and put on trial for murder; having alienated his wife by lying about his activities, he is no longer concerned about his fate, but the Legion threatens to do harm to his wife and child unless he “cooperates”—meaning keeping quiet about the Legion. In the end, Taylor can’t maintain the pretence and the lies that are breaking his wife’s heart, and exposes all the Black Legion members in the courtroom, there to make sure everything goes according to plan—effectively ending their criminal activities.

What is amazing about this film is not that it was fact-based. The anti-immigrant Black Legion was real. Its activities ranged in several Midwestern states, but principally in Michigan and particularly Detroit; its victims were mostly black, but any white who was an immigrant, religious minority or was engaged in “socialist” or “communist” activities—such as labor rights movements—was also a potential target. The Legion’s anti-labor activities apparently included infiltrating the UAW in order to obtain “inside information” for auto company management. According to a Detroit News historical retrospective on the group, its “oath of allegiance” declared that as native-born white Americans, “We regard as enemies to ourselves and our country all aliens, Negroes, Jews and cults and creeds believing in racial equality or owing allegiance to any foreign potentates. These we will fight without fear or favor as long as one foe of American liberty is left alive.” Interestingly, the Legion set-up a political front—the Wolverine Republican Club—which received support from local Republican politicians, despite the reputation of the “club” engaging in unsavory and often violent acts against the opponents of their preferred candidates. The Legion—as implied in the film—was eventually brought down by the murder of a white man, who was a labor rights activist.

What is remarkable about the film is that in 1936, a film company—Warner Brothers—had decided that the public needed to be educated about the menaces to civilized society in its midst. Not immigrants or racial minorities, but the so-called “100 percent Americans.” These people were not in fact “real” Americans—their refusal to countenance “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for anyone but themselves was inimical to the American ideal. “Black Legion” was one of many “minor” films during that time that took on what FDR referred to as “fear itself” being perpetrated by the propaganda of the right. Today, we can ask ourselves a different question: Who in the media, whether in film or news reporting, is exposing the real menace to this country, those who inspire fear and hatred toward entire groups deemed “undesirable” and preventing any rational discourse? Outside of a few dedicated groups like the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center, almost no one. The current Tea Party “Movement” is just another of a long, sorry line of racist, anti-immigrant and anti-government groups that have polluted political discourse over the centuries, hiding their extremism behind the façade of clichés provided them by their corporate pay and puppet-masters. The media hasn’t figured it out yet, but the truth will eventually win-out; the question is if by that time will be it too late to avert its destructive course.

Nor has the media or the film industry had the courage to expose to the general public the dangers the country faces from unbridled hatred and the demonization of vulnerable people of whom the vast majority have endured trials and tribulations that few “real” Americans will ever know. The SPL Center reported that there are 319 nativist extremist groups targeting immigrants in 2010. The largest by number of chapters is the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition. On its website, the group warns against the “conquest” of the United States by Latin American. It implies that the entire population of Latin America, which it puts at 550 million, is poised to invade and overwhelm the United States and its meager population of 300 million. Who are these undocumented “hordes” invading the country—most of whom are not from Mexico (although most pass through Mexico) but from Central American countries as well as China, the Middle East, Africa and India? An immigrant from Belize told the Associated Press that their experiences before reaching the U.S. include “running from the military, the authorities, the police and now the criminals…We are just poor people, we’re just passing through. Why do they have to do this to us? I’m not afraid. I’m prepared to die. I’m tired of suffering in this world.” And then many suffer the same after they come to America. These are the people that Pat Buchanan said are “out to destroy America.” The suffering comes not just from past exploitation of Central America by U.S. interests that undermined the interests of indigenous peoples in favor of Euro-elites; as I noted in a prior post, the current violence in Mexico’s drug “industry” is a direct result of the “successful” war against the top Colombian cartels in the 1990s. Like so much of the U.S.’s usually self-serving foreign policy activities, its intervention in Columbia backfired—only making matters worse by bringing the violence closer to home; previous routes used by the Colombians through Florida were obviously much less prone to be the scene of violence, save in the country of origin, far from U.S. shores.

Once in this country, it is question of relativity. Hot on the heels of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law that mandates racial profiling against Latinos, is Georgia’s anti-immigrant H.B. 87, which essentially mirrors the Arizona law. But there is a philosophical difference: In Georgia, it is like the playground bully who beats down a smaller kid just because he doesn’t like him—and then the victim of the beating is suspended from school so he won’t be around to tempt the bully into beating him again.

The Nation recently examined the current climate in Georgia with a story on the emergence of a new version of Jim Crow in which Latinos regardless of legal status are forced to endure—“Juan Crow”: “A racial and political climate in which Latinos' subordinate status in Georgia and in the Deep South bears more than a passing resemblance to that of African-Americans who were living under Jim Crow. Call it Juan Crow: the matrix of laws, social customs, economic institutions and symbolic systems enabling the physical and psychic isolation needed to control and exploit” immigrants. The SPL Center goes further:

“This treatment - which many Latinos liken to the oppressive climate of racial subordination that blacks endured during the Jim Crow era - is encouraged by politicians and media figures who scapegoat immigrants and spread false propaganda. And as a result of relentless vilification in the media, Latinos are targeted for harassment by racist extremist groups, some of which are directly descended from the old guardians of white supremacy…Instead of acting to prohibit and eliminate systematic exploitation and discrimination against Latinos, state and local governments in much of the South have exacerbated the situation. A number of Southern communities, for example, have enacted ordinances designed to limit services to undocumented immigrants and make their lives as difficult as possible, with the ultimate goal of driving them away. In addition, many law enforcement agencies in the South, armed with so-called 287(g) agreements with the federal government, are enforcing immigration law in a way that has led to accusations of systematic racial profiling…We found a population under siege and living in fear - fear of the police, fear of the government and fear of criminals who prey on immigrants because of their vulnerability.”

Since all Latinos are considered “suspect,” the discrimination has been generalized. The top man in perpetrating this spread of race hatred in Georgia is Gov. Nathan Deal. Does this interest cable news outlets like CNN? Of course not; it would rather spend time criticizing a doctored photo of Deal in a Spanish language newspaper, wearing a Nazi uniform. Frankly, my impression was that it fit him just fine.

In 2004, the Center exposed the so-called “Battle of 'Georgiafornia.” While there have been more high profile cases as such as the murder of an immigrant in Shenandoah, PA that involved white “youths” and a cover-up by local police that led to indictments and convictions on civil rights charges, it appears by all accounts that the Georgia’s under-the-radar incidents happen with great frequency. In a lengthy piece written by Bob Moser, stories such as students from a Canton, Georgia high school engaging in their own Black Legion-like activities would seem to be the norm, not the exception. After a string of unexplained beatings and robberies of immigrant laborers, arrests were made after one of the students bragged that he and his gang were “robbing and beating up Mexicans.” According to an assistant police chief, the “Mexicans” were “easy prey.” The difference between the lower-class thugs who made-up the Black Legion and these thugs could not be more stark, however: One was “an heir to one of the county's most powerful (Republican) families.” He was also the president of high school AG club. Another thug was a junior ROTC cadet; still another was an Explorer Scout. These were all “kids” from well-to-do families for whom Latinos had become so dehumanized from media, political and local propaganda that they had become mere animals.

Moser noted that “In the formerly homogenous town of Chamblee, just north of Atlanta, white residents began complaining as early as 1992 about the ‘terrible, filthy people’ standing on their street corners. At a town council meeting, one official infamously suggested that residents set bear traps in their yards to keep the Hispanics at bay. Another councilman wondered aloud whether Chamblee whites should form a vigilante group to scare off the immigrants. In every part of the U.S. where large numbers of Hispanic immigrants have moved, anti-immigration groups have sprung up in protest. But the backlash in Georgia has been fueled not only by these ‘mainstream’ groups, but also by hardcore neo-Nazis, Southern ‘heritage’ activists and white-supremacist hate groups — all of them saying strikingly similar things about the ‘Mexican invasion.’" An “ethnic war” is in the offing—a second Civil War, according to some these fanatics.

A few brave souls recognized that allowing this hate to “mainstream” has dangerous consequences. One of them was State Sen. Vincent Fort, a civil rights activist whose district is a largely black section of Atlanta. Fort supported a group of Latinos seeking to march in Doraville, but were being forced to pay for “police protection.” Fort argued before the city council that the Latino group’s free speech rights were being hindered merely because they were “different.” After some testy—and racially insensitive commentary—the Latino group was eventually allowed to conduct their march, but Fort predicted that “As they start to assert themselves and defend their rights, it won't be pleasant. We know that from the civil-rights movement.”

A civil-rights analyst for the National Council of La Raza was more blunt: "The message sent by these (aforementioned Canton) assaults is already bad enough. If you wake up at 5 a.m. and want to work hard in Georgia, you're putting your life at risk."

The final scene in “Black Legion” had the judge making the following address to the members of the Legion who had just been convicted of murder:

“Furthermore, your idea of patriotism and Americanism is hideous to all decent citizens. It violates every protection guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in our constitution. The Bill of Rights, assuring to us freedom of religious opinion and security of person and property against the attack of illegal and extralegal forces is the cornerstone of true Americanism. And must be jealously guarded if we are to remain a free people. We cannot permit racial or religious hatreds to be stirred up so that innocent citizens become the victims of accusations brought in secrecy. We cannot permit unknown tribunals to pass judgments. Nor punishments to be inflicted by a band of hooded terrorists. Unless all of these illegal and extralegal forces are ruthlessly wiped out this nation may as well abandon its constitution forget its Bill of Rights, tear down its courts of justice and revert to the barbarism of government by primitive violence. This would mean relinquishing everything that civilized man has won by the most prodigious effort over a course of the past five centuries. The American people made their choice long ago. Their blood and their sacrifices secured for us the basic human rights: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their wisdom built the structure of our democratic form of government expressly to keep sacred and inviolate these same human rights. It is our duty to guard them zealously if we are to remain a nation of free men. As Abraham Lincoln said: "Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is the spirit that prizes liberty as the heritage of all men in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors."

Then, as now, the real threat to country are the cowards who hide their crimes to civilized society behind the façade of “patriotism” and “Americanism.” Who will stand up to them? Mighty few indeed from what I can see.

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