(NNPA)—Speaking at the recent conference of the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson, Miss., I constantly ran into questions and comments drawing comparisons to the racial harassment faced by civil workers in the 1960s and what is occurring today. Most said there was very little comparison to the intensity of the racism faced by those who attempted to vote or eat at a lunch counter, and we know that many sacrificed their lives.
Yet it was ironic that these were Congressman John Lewis’ colleagues and he and other Black members of Congress were spit at and called the ‘n’ word as they passed by some tea baggers on Capitol Hill recently.
The spate of hate crimes that came as President Barack Obama signed the health bill into law that has featured shots being fired at Democratic campaign offices and bricks thrown through their windows and other things have a familiar ring to me. Not the 1960s, but in the Reagan era of the 1980s and ’90s, the rise of the militia movement found White males arming themselves and practicing in the woods on weekends for some kind of mythical confrontation. The Branch Davidian cult shoot-out with Treasury Department agents in 1993 at Waco, Texas, became their rallying cry against government oppression and interference.
Oddly, the handling of this incident put the government on the defensive and allowed the militia movement to draw Republican members of Congress into the incident on their side. Then the Justice Department backed off.
What we saw then was the creation of unity between native White nationalist operating at the neighborhood level being reflected in their representatives in Congress who opposed government intervention, using this to elevate the right to bear arms as the signal issue in the case.
This union between native White nationalists and public officials and political leaders is still going on and the danger is that they are giving legitimacy to the madness occurring at the base of society. That is what happens when a Republican member of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, shouts out to the president, “you lie” or when another, Rep. Randy Neugebauger from Texas, shouts “baby killer” as he did at Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan right in the Congress.
Then comes Sarah Palin, former Republican vice presidential candidate, telling her crowd “don’t retreat, reload” as her website features members of Congress she wanted to defeat sited on a map in rifle cross-hairs. Words are powerful and these tell the base of the Republican Party that it is okay to oppose Democrats by any means necessary.
In this debate, the media shuns the truth because it wants to practice a “both sides do it” theory which absolves them from saying clearly where the hateful rhetoric and thus, the violence, is coming from. As it was in the Reagan era, this is clearly a feature of the radical conservative movement, the base of the Republican Party. Yet, the media—and the Richmond police—have allowed conservative Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who just happens to be a Republican spokesman, to pretend that his office was also shot at in order to keep alive the “both sides” theory.
The fact that bringing those to justice who perpetrated crimes against Blacks in the 1960s is still going on through the cold case unit of the Justice Department means that law enforcement was either lax or nonexistent then. Today there is a popular concept that police forces around the country use Zero Tolerance policies, which they say has been responsible for the reduction of crime in various periods of history.
They believe Zero Tolerance for small infractions of law suppresses larger problems. This Justice Department needs to practice Zero Tolerance against political violence just as it does against neighborhood violence that has locked up too many of our youths. To continue to tolerate such speech and acts of violence only makes it more legitimate.
The major media wants us to believe that this is a “fringe” phenomenon or that it is all about health care. But the death threats and vandalism moving across the country shows us it is more than that. I agree with Frank Rich of The New York Times that it may be about the conjunction of factors such as immigration (read Hispanics), the presence of a Black man in the White House, a female Speaker of the House, a powerful gay man Barney Frank regulating the capitalist system. So, for those whose anger is directed at “taking their country back” it ain’t going to happen, the demographics are against it.
So, buckle up. We may be in for a very bumpy ride as a nation.
(Dr. Ron Walters is a political analyst and professor emeritus of government and politics at the University of Maryland.)