Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rise of Right Wing "Populism" -- Coalition Building Ahead?

Drove home from the United National Peace Conference in Albany in a hopeful mood. Marching with 100+ folks on the last day was uplifting to our spirits, despite the distressing news of special prisons just for Muslims subject to "preemptive prosecution" by our government. The Muslim Solidarity Committee & Project SALAM had invited us to Masjid As-Salam where we were warmly welcomed and heard remarks from family members who are not able to visit or communicate with their fathers, sons, uncles and brothers who are whisked away in the night for crimes they "might" commit. A 12 year old girl has not seen her father in a year. The mother of a mentally challenged teenager recently learned his trial has been postponed for a year.

Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK said, since our host stated the belief that the mosque is under surveillance by the FBI, she had a message for her government: if you want to make me safer, stop bombing civilians abroad and violating civil rights here at home.

On the way out the door Mark and I were lucky enough to run into Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council. We walked a ways with her and then her brother was nice enough to give us all a ride back to the conference hotel. Nellie wanted to know more about the last workshop, "The Rise of Right Wing Populism and the Tea Party: Do We Need a Right-Left Coalition?" which I had moderated. Nellie's Black Agenda radio co-host Glen Ford had been a speaker and she was curious about how the discussion went after the panelists spoke.

I told her about 100 people had attended, and that the overwhelming majority of those who came to the podium during discussion period agreed with Glen: if you invite tea party type groups to join an antiwar coalition, you will drive away people of color, indigenous people, LGBT people who are frightened by racist, anti-gay rhetoric. The history of right wing movements with white supremacist beliefs is a violent one. A white woman with an African American husband aptly summed up the consensus view: “Are you out of your minds?”

Medea was a panelist and shared that she was not interested in forming a coalition, but she had gone into the field at a tea party rally in Washington DC to find out more about what participants were thinking. She and other PINKs were spat on and called “code stink” while conducting their April 15 survey. Drawing tea partiers out about their antiwar sentiments exposes the hypocrisy of tea party leaders who focus on lowering taxes and reducing the deficit without addressing out of control spending on wars and occupations. Also, 80% of those surveyed favored continuing aid to Israel, the 5th richest country in the world, which receives a $3 billion credit for weapons each year at the U.S. taxpayer's expense.

Coalition building was on everyone's minds at the conference (videos here). Blanca Misse, graduate student and activist from UC Berkeley, called for grassroots organizers and activists in workers rights, peace, immigration, and other movements to come together. Dr. Margaret Flowers of Physicians for a National Health Program and Baucus 13 fame was there with her family. Veteran Ethan McCord came to share “facts on the ground” from the now infamous Collateral Murder video. His statement at the press conference stays with me. An 18 year old asked what happened in basic training to make soldiers capable of acting as those in the video did, laughing while mowing down civilians and even children. McCord: “First, let me just say that nobody who is in the military in Iraq wants to be there. Nobody.”

On the way back into Maine we drove by a trailer with a lot of signs on the lawn facing the highway, including a 6ft high cartoon of President Obama smoking a cigar labeled “Constitution” and lighting it from a burning paper labeled “Bill of Rights.” While photographing this display we were greeted by Patrick, the creator. He had a lot of other signs on his lawn as well: praising Arizona's SB1070 law, pleading for jobs, and suggesting all racists be deported (white racists to South Africa, etc.).

Patrick said he was unemployed, and his wife was no longer a teacher because she didn't get along with the administration. He seemed to assume we were socialists for some reason, though we had had said nothing about our beliefs. “If you're a socialist you want to help people. I used to be a car mechanic. Lost my job and can't find a job and don't have no car. If you believe in socialism, then you should give me your car.”

He also had painted a sign of a black man about to strike a white infant with a long stick. This was about the “new Black Panther party which will kill all the crackers” according to Patrick.

Here's an exchange we had about his big cartoon:

Me: What has Obama done against the constitution that you're mad about – is it renewing the Patriot Act? (He acted unsure what that was.) Is it about the 2nd amendment? (“You all gotta be liberals.") Your sign here shows Obama burning the Bill of Rights. What's that about?

Patrick: That's what he's done, he's shredded the constitution. It's as good as gone. He's put all his eggs in energy basket. When you go out there those windmills -- half of them don't work. They don't tell you that.

I asked how he felt about U.S. aid to Israel.

Patrick: Israel is a great ally. They're our best friend. But it's like that friend that every time you go to a bar together, they get in a fight.

After we drove away my husband said Patrick was parroting a lot of incoherent stuff from right wing hate radio. I rode home thinking of Chomsky saying we ignore the authentic distress of the non-working poor at our peril (because the fascists will organize them instead of our doing it). Also wondering what Patrick's isolation without a car way out in the sticks would lead to. In my fantasy world I have the funds to buy a decent used car, and I leave it in his driveway with a note, “You're right, Patrick, I have socialist tendencies.”

And I'm with Nellie and Glen. Right wing populism scares the crap out of me.

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