Solidarity in the Face of the Unthinkable

​I can say with some degree of confidence that Hillary Rodham Clinton will carry DC on Tuesday. I wish I could say with the same degree of confidence that the same will happen on the national level. But I can’t. Instead I feel helpless and paralyzed with anxiety, terrified that my worst fears about America’s destructive potential – all-out fascism if I have to give it a name – might come to pass. Come to pass in spite of all my education, my studies, my desperate – and ultimately futile? – attempts to understand political systems and human behavior . . . as though that knowledge could somehow inoculate me from the inevitable. The inevitable fear not that the United States will become fascist but that the United States will revert to fascism. This is how it feels to be a minority in a country that has exercised unimaginable brutality against not one but two populations – one native, the other not – in the name of enriching a few families. This is how it feels to be a minority knowing that the circumstances of my life – like the lives of millions of other people of color – depends less on my own personal efforts and most on the mood of the majority. In this time of anxiety I am comforted by the fact that millions of White people – members of the numerical, political, and economic majority – are up in arms and out in force campaigning, advocating, canvassing to get out the vote and keep Donald Trump, the fascist candidate, out of the now-more-than-every-tragically-named White House. I have read about White women braving the anger and hatred of conservative male relatives, publicly denouncing and severing ties in full view of social media. People I know personally are driving up to Pennsylvania, a battleground state, for get-out-the-vote drives, and others are phone or text banking from their homes. Such solidarity might be the greatest and most lasting contribution of Donald Trump’s fascist campaign to American politicsys. His campaign has brought people of goodwill together in recognition that what Trump says about Mexicans, Muslims, women – to say nothing of his nomination of a rabidly anti-LGBT running mate – bodes ill for America. Bad not just for the groups he has vilified but for all Americans. My hope is that this close encounter with fascism – regardless of Tuesday’s results – will jolt us out of our politics-of-identity stupor into a greater awareness of our shared humanity, our shared destiny, and greater recognition that what is bad for some of us is bad for all of us.

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Just Another Day in the Land of Hopes and Dreams

Something strange happened today. Something that very seldom happens to me. And when it does, it happens gradually and almost imperceptibly. Subconsciously even. Today, I felt a shift in my perspective. A small, subtle shift. But a shift nonetheless.

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to tutor immigrants at a community center not far from where I live. All the immigrants are getting ready for the naturalization interview, their penultimate step towards US citizenship. This community center provides free English-language lessons, lessons that will hopefully help them pass their interviews and become US citizens.

Today was my first time with this group. I’ve taught English to immigrants many times before, so the experience itself was nothing new. There was the familiar excitement of meeting new people, learning where they are from and what brought them to the US. There was the camaraderie borne of communion, of sharing my own story, telling of my own experiences as an immigrant, an outsider.

It was a small class, with about a dozen or so students, all roughly middle-aged. Each volunteer was assigned a small group of two or three students. I was matched up with Ferdinand and Isabella (not their real names). The routine was pretty simple. No need for materials or a lesson plan. They had their citizenship booklets and workbooks full of US history and various writing exercises. We would work from those.

After introductions and the customary initial awkwardness, Ferdinand and Isabella seemed to loosen up. I started out with basic questions: what have you been working on in the class? Is there anything particular you’d like to work on? Both wanted to practise speaking. So we moved on to questions about them. Both are from a small Central American country. Both are divorced with children. Ferdinand has four from two previous wives. Isabella has two from her previous husband. They live in Europe. Isabella used to live in Europe with her sons but they’re grown now. I also learned that she and Ferdinand are married: he for the third time and she for the second.

Moving on to the more structured part of the lesson, I asked them both to write down a list of five things they liked about their country of birth. They talked about the weather (Isabella likes it hot), the food, the people, and the beach. Ferdinand said he likes the colors of the flag. I asked him what it was about the flag that he liked and he replied that as a kid in school, he’d have to look at the flag and pledge loyalty to it—just like in the US. Then he went to say that in his country of birth, you were allowed to look at the flag and maybe touch it. But you could not tear it or set fire to it. If you did, the army would take you away and . . . he made one hand into a fist and pounded it into the open palm of the other. Sometimes, a gesture speaks louder than words.

For the next part of the lesson, I had them ask each other questions about what they liked about the US. Isabella likes that there are people of many different nationalities. Ferdinand likes Atlantic City. And New York. He also likes the freedom, because he believes people should be able to express themselves without being pounded by the army. Isabella also likes that there are many opportunities here to have a good life. And she revealed that she would like to own a beauty salon someday. Ferdinand talked about how becoming a citizen would improve his chances of getting a better job. We continued to converse in this vein . . . while a realization slowly formed in my mind.

At several points in the hour-long lesson, I was deeply moved by this middle-aged couple, so different in so many ways yet so united in their belief in the potential of this country. He had come to the US as a young man in the ’70s but had chosen to return home, only to come back to the US six years ago. She had left her birth country at 15 and spent the better part of two decades in Europe, before making her way to the US. They had both lived elsewhere but had chosen to make the US their home.

And that’s when it hit me. This country’s strength, I realized, lies not in what it is, or even claims to be—lord knows, it falls far short of many of those claims. Rather, it lies in people like Ferdinand and Isabella, ordinary people whose desire for a better life gives them the strength to hope, the courage to follow their dreams wherever they may lead, and the determination to do whatever it takes to make them come true.

Luis Ramirez’s Killers About to Stand Trial

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died two days later from head injuries sustained during the attack.

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died two days later from head injuries sustained during the attack.

The Republican Herald reports that jury selection in the trial of Derek Donchak, Colin Walsh, and Brandon Piekarsky will begin on April 22, with the trial itself set to start on April 27.

Last summer, the three accused attacked Luis Ramirez after they ran into him and a young woman in a park. The woman turned out to be the younger sister of Ramirez’s fiancee, whom he was walking home. Donchak, Walsh, and Piekarsky had—according to witness testimony—been drinking malt liquor in the woods near the park.

The ensuing attack left Luis Ramirez unconscious and foaming at the mouth. One question that will hopefully be answered by the trial is whether it was Colin Walsh or Brandon Piekarsky who delivered the fatal blow. Walsh’s sucker punch knocked Ramirez down and left him unconscious on the ground, where he lay when Brandon Piekarsky delivered a final kick to his head. The unconscious Ramirez was transferred to hospital, where he died two days later. 

Elsewhere, it is being reported that Colin Walsh has agreed to testify against his co-accused. There is also some confusion about whether or not the charges against him will be/have been dropped in exchange for his cooperation. Hopefully more information will come out about the details of the various plea arrangements.

The announcement that justice will be done in the Luis Ramirez beating-death case comes as good news for supporters of the rule of law. And, as anti-immigrant rhetoric is ratcheted up and anti-immigrant hate crimes continue to increase, it is important that those who are found to have committed hate crimes are punished according to the law.

The law does not require anyone to like anyone else, but it does state explicitly that a person may not physically assault or kill another person. Hopefully justice will be done.

Hate Speech is Not Free Speech: Chilean Students’ Killer had a History of Xenophobia

On the morning of Thursday, February 27, 14 friends gathered at a townhome in Miramar Beach, Florida for a party. At around 1:45 am, Dannie Roy Baker, who lived in the same complex as the hosts, crossed the compound with a rifle and opened fire on the partygoers.

By the time police arrived at the scene, five people had been shot—two of them fatally—and the shooter had returned to his home, where he awaited the arrival of police. Since his arrest, Dannie Baker has not spoken to the police so his motive for the killings is not known. But enough information has come out to indicate that it was at least partially motivated by the fact that the victims’ were not native-born Americans. All 14 people at the party, including Baker’s five victims, are Latinos. The two he killed were Chilean students visiting the US as part of a work-study program.

The story is not getting widely picked up in the national media and one of the first places to compile details was the Daily KOS, who reports that Dannie Baker had volunteered with the local Republican Electoral Committee during the 2004 presidential race, after which he apparently sent “radical” and “inappropriate” emails to other members. Baker’s emails were so disturbing that they were reported to the local sheriff’s department but, because the emails did not contain threats against a specific person, the sheriff’s department took no further action against him. The actual text of these emails has not yet been released.

Although Baker had no history of violence, it appears he was not entirely mentally or emotionally stable. According to Jim Anders, a member of the Republican Executive Committee, Baker was very “eccentric” and seemed to have “some emotional problems.” And Crystal Lynn, a neighbor of Baker’s, says “he did come up to me one time and asked me if I was ready for the revolution to begin and if I had any immigrant in my house to get them out.”

Until more information comes out, there’s no way to know what Dannie Baker wrote in those emails that so troubled people that they reported him to the police. Hopefully, he didn’t write about killing immigrants because that would mean the sheriff’s department screwed up big-time by not investigating him further and putting him someplace where he could not be a threat to others. A direct threat against a specific person should justifiably be grounds for police action, but so should threats against a specific group. After all, a hate crime does not target a specific person but it does target a specific group, identified by race, nationality, sexual orientation, or some other collective identity marker.

So if it turns out that Baker had made threats against Latinos or any other immigrant group, the Sheriff’s department should explain why they took no further police action against him. Freedom of speech permits deranged and sane people alike to say whatever they please, but if one of those crazy people rants against foreigners, sends “radical” and “inappropriate” emails, and tells his neighbor to get immigrants out of her house, that ought to be grounds for the local police to do something. Now two people are dead, three are wounded, and an entire community is traumatized. But of course, until the contents of Baker’s emails are released, there’s no way to know if he had made threats against a specific racial group.

At the end of the day, hate speech is not free speech, but it seems many Americans have trouble distinguishing the two. Or perhaps, with more Americans joining hate groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric—to say nothing of anti-immigrant action—becoming more mainstream, the question should not be whether Americans can recognize hate speech but whether and to what extent they are bothered by it. (The fact that several news outlets have mentioned the victims’ immigration status—as if that is relevant to the case!—further illustrates this country’s obsession with immigration. God only knows what the news coverage of this hate crime would look like if the victims had been in the country without the proper immigration paperwork!)

Now, twenty-three-year-old Nicolas Corp-Torres and twenty-two-year-old Racine Baldontin-Aragondona—two of Dannie Baker’s victims—are dead. But they might still be alive had local law enforcement understood, or cared about, the difference between hate speech and free speech the first time they had to deal with Dannie Baker.

Anti-Immigrant Organizations Linked to Racist Hate Groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) just issued a report linking several mainstream anti-immigrant organizations to racist and White supremacist groups. The report concludes that the groups FAIR, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA. Here’s an excerpt:

Three Washington, D.C.-based immigration-restriction organizations stand at the nexus of the American nativist movement: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA. Although on the surface they appear quite different — the first, the country’s best-known anti-immigrant lobbying group; the second, an “independent” think tank; and the third, a powerful grassroots organizer — they are fruits of the same poisonous tree.

FAIR, CIS and NumbersUSA are all part of a network of restrictionist organizations conceived and created by John Tanton, the “puppeteer” of the nativist movement and a man with deep racist roots. As the first article in this report shows, Tanton has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene. He has met with leading white supremacists, promoted anti-Semitic ideas, and associated closely with the leaders of a eugenicist foundation once described by a leading newspaper as a “neo-Nazi organization.” He has made a series of racist statements about Latinos and worried that they were outbreeding whites. At one point, he wrote candidly that to maintain American culture, “a European-American majority” is required.

FAIR, which Tanton founded and where he remains on the board, has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Among the reasons are its acceptance of $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund, a group founded to promote the genes of white colonials that funds studies of race, intelligence and genetics. FAIR has also hired as key officials men who also joined white supremacist groups. It has board members who regularly write for hate publications. It promotes racist conspiracy theories about Latinos. And it has produced television programming featuring white nationalists.

The full report can be found here.

There was always something deeply troubling about the rhetoric coming out of the anti-immigrant camp but it was hard to put a finger on exactly what it was. But it’s clear now, thanks to the folks at the SPLC.

Wheels of Justice Appear to be Turning in Luis Ramirez Murder Case.

Three teens charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez will be charged with third-degree murder, aggravated assault, and ethnic intimidation.

Three Shenandoah, Pennsylvania teens charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez will be tried for third-degree murder, aggravated assault, and ethnic intimidation.

CNN reports that Brandon Piekarsky (left), Colin Walsh (center), and Derrick Donchak (right) will stand trial on charges related to the beating death last month of Luis Ramirez, a Mexican migrant. The case cast a national spotlight on the Pennsylvania town of Shenandoah, where the Latino population has encountered hostility from the White community.

Sixteen-year-old Piekarsky and 17-year-old Walsh will be tried “on counts of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation.” Both will be tried as adults.

Eighteen-year-old Derrick Donchak “has been ordered to stand trial on aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other offenses.”

According to eyewitness testimony from Ben Lawson, a 17-year-old friend of the three accused,

Ramirez [the victim] was fighting with one of the suspects, Derrick M. Donchak, when another, Colin Walsh, sucker-punched the victim. A third suspect, Brandon Piekarsky, then kicked Ramirez in the head while he lay motionless in the street.”

Lawson also testified that he, the three accused, and two other friends had been drinking in the woods on the night of the attack that resulted in the death of Luis Ramirez. Lawson went on to say that the next day, they met at Brandon Piekarsky’s house to plan what they were going to tell the police:

We made up a plan that we we’re going to tell the cops that nobody kicked him, that there were no racial slurs, there was no booze, and Brian got hit first.”

Having failed to protect Luis Ramirez in life, we can now only hope that the legal system will dispense justice to the people responsible for his death. More importanly, let’s hope the outcome of this trial makes other would-be hate criminals think twice before beating someone to death simply because he looks different from them.

Luis Ramirez Death Brings Calls for Tolerance

At Sacred Heart Church in Allentown, Marcos Urbana (left) talks about the meaning of Luis Ramirez's death in Shenandoah. With Urbina are (from left) the Rev. Manfred K. Bahmann, the Rev. David Kozak, Jesus Ramos and Fernando Almazan. (Rich Schultz/Special to The Morning Call / August 11, 2008)

At Sacred Heart Church in Allentown, Marcos Urbana (left) talks about the meaning of Luis Ramirez's death in Shenandoah. With Urbina are (from left) the Rev. Manfred K. Bahmann, the Rev. David Kozak, Jesus Ramos and Fernando Almazan. (Rich Schultz/Special to The Morning Call / August 11, 2008)

From The Morning Call:

In Shenandoah, the Schuylkill County borough where the beating happened, residents and religious leaders called for unity and tolerance. They acknowledged ethnic tensions within the changing community makeup but said borough residents had a lot of good to offer.

The mood at the Allentown vigil was more political, with Hispanic advocates criticizing Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli for helping to create an anti-Hispanic climate.

The fatal beating occurred on July 12, as Ramirez, 25, walked home with his fiancee’s sister. Police said the teenagers ran into Ramirez at 11:30 p.m. and told the woman to ”get your Mexican boyfriend out of here,” according to court documents. When Ramirez responded, ”What’s your problem?” the fight began.

The teenagers beat Ramirez so severely he never regained consciousness, authorities said. Two days later, the father of three died.

Colin J. Walsh, 17, and Brandon J. Piekarsky, 16, were charged as adults with homicide, ethnic intimidation and related offenses. Derrick M. Donchak, 18, was charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and related crimes. All live in Shenandoah.

Police said a fourth teenager, who is 17, was being charged as a juvenile for other offenses.

On Sunday, the Rev. Brunilda Martinez expressed disappointment at the size of the crowd: About 60 people gathered for a ”Reconnecting Healing Service” Sunday afternoon at First United Methodist Church in Shenandoah.

The bad publicity the borough is getting could translate instead into opportunity for showcasing its strengths, she said. ”That is a challenge for us. You say what? I can prove you wrong,” said Martinez. ”We are going to make a new Shenandoah for our children and our grandchildren.”

Outside Sacred Heart Church in Allentown, nearly 50 people gathered, holding candles near a sign that said ”No to Racial Discrimination.”

Marcos Urbina, president of the Mexican Cultural Association of the Lehigh Valley, said Barletta and Morganelli seemed to forget their families had at one time also been immigrants. He criticized those who said Ramirez was in part to blame for being in the country illegally.

”This man isn’t dead because he was here illegally,” Urbina said. ”This man is dead because he was Hispanic. It could have been me or anyone else.”

Ann Van Dyke, assistant director of the state Human Relations Commission, said the small coal town fits the profile of a community more prone to fostering hostilities.

In such places there might be fear about the changing demographics, Van Dyke said. She said there’s a separation based on race, ethnicity or economics, youth feel alienated and often, the place may be struggling economically.

”The eyes of the country are on you. Now is the time to define Shenandoah,” she told attendees in Shenandoah.

In a report released earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found 33 hate groups in Pennsylvania in 2007, up from 27 in 2006.

The Alabama-based civil rights group linked that increase in part to growing anti-Hispanic sentiment, pointing to FBI data that showed 819 hate crimes against the ethnic group in 2006, a 38 percent increase from 2003.

Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, who teaches Puerto Rican studies at Brooklyn College, said while there may be an anti-Hispanic feeling now, it’s always some group.

”It’s not just now. It’s not just Shenandoah,” said Stevens-Arroyo, who spoke in the borough.

Racial and ethnic tensions have existed as long as humans have been around, he said.

Allentown Councilman Julio Guridy said Barletta’s attempts to get legislation fining landlords who rent or employ illegal immigrants was instrumental in creating a situation where people could feel comfortable giving in to their hate.

He called on state and national leaders to get serious about passing meaningful immigration reform.