Breaking Spamtown’s spiral of silence

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The role of a journalist, says popular Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, is to go where the silence is.

In Austin, Minnesota, and surrounding communities, a tiny but vocal number of neo-Nazis presenting the vocal and public face of white supremacist sentiments have pushed many in the local Latina/o community into a fearful silence.  Reading the Austin Daily Herald, you’ll encounter another sort of silence.  The paper almost never identifies the swastika-wearing, Hitler-saluting National Socialist Movement (NSM) members as neo-Nazis.

Bluestem Prairie is a hip (but not cynical) rural magazine for those who prefer take their corn with a progressive chaser and tongue planted firmly in cheek.

So, as a volunteer citizen journalist for the Twin Cities Independent Media Center (an open-publishing outlet of the global Indymedia network), when Austin and Twin Cities activists announced plans for a Saturday, October 17 rally to counter the neo-Nazis, I had to attend.

(Author’s note: You can read the extensive TC-IMC report on the day’s events here: White supremacists versus the community: Austin and Twin Cities activists confront the NSM)

A colleague and I arrived in Austin’s quiet downtown with the sun high in the sky, and I remembered what small town life is like in a hard economy.  I grew up in Pine Island, essentially a bedroom community for Rochester, and traversed southern Minnesota until I left for school in Minneapolis.  But on Saturday, after getting out of the car, I saw something I’ve never seen before: neo-Nazis, out in the open in full regalia, in front of a WWII veterans’ memorial.

 

The two of us had arrived before any of the counter-demonstrators.  Wondering if the neo-Nazis would mistake us for protesters, we walked on by, stopped at an open natural foods store hidden amongst empty storefronts, and walked back. Then, we met Ernesto Velez Busto, an organizer with Owatonna-based Centro Campesino, the local immigrant rights organization.

Velez Busto spoke to us about the roots of white supremacy amongst working class Austin citizens, beginning with the 1985-6 Hormel strike and continuing with the current economic crisis.

“There’s this mentality of not looking at the top tier, the [company] that’s screwing both sides,” he said.  He mentioned hearing an NSM member talk about how recent immigrants were willing – forced, really – to work for less, thus driving down wages for everyone.  “That’s where we’re not so different – We’d like to make more money per hour too.”

Asked about the coming demonstrators from the Twin Cities, Velez Busto said “they’re more than welcome.”  In late September, a crowd of 200 people drove the same four neo-nazis away from outside an anti-racism workshop in a diverse south Minneapolis neighborhood.  But the neo-nazis repeated appearances in Austin, Owatonna, Fairbault and other nearby towns haven’t generated the same immediate community response.

Dan Gannon, an organizer of the Minneapolis action, said that forceful opposition is necessary because silence “emboldens the Nazis.  It gives them a toe in the door.”  But clearly, in southeast Minnesota, white supremacist sentiments have wedged in more than just a toe.

Soon, demonstrators–mostly white–began to pour in.  Many were from the Twin Cities.  Others were from the Austin area.  All were determined to drown out the neo-Nazis.  Once the police showed up, too, most of the Latina/o activists quietly left.  Later, Jonathan, a college-aged Austin resident, told us about a previous rally against the NSM, a much tamer and quieter event.  He noted that at that protest, Austin police profiled and took photos of Latina/o demonstrators.  The next week, Jonathan said, arrests of Austin-area immigrants spiked.

Much has been made in local media about what happened next, some of it accurate and some not.  The banners and chants of the 50 anti-racists overwhelmed those of the neo-Nazis, effectively drowning out their message of “white power” for the afternoon.  In fact, you could say the white anti-racists displayed a type of white power of their own – the power to use one’s skin privilege for the pursuit of justice.

But seemingly without a clear plan of whether to physically drive the neo-Nazis out or to use other tactics, a 50-versus-4 stand-off ensued.  The four were soon backed up by the Austin police, Mower County deputies, and a State Patrol officer.  Law enforcement chose not to arrest a neo-Nazi who smashed an anti-racist’s phone.  But they did arrest three anti-racist demonstrators and maced several more at close range.  All this, even though the only thing that could be described as violence was a handful of lofted tomatoes, jello cups, and a water balloon filled with glitter.

Tame stuff compared to the purges of Jews, gays and people of color described in the NSM platform: “We demand that all non-Whites currently residing in America be required to leave.”

Really, the only reason the mace and the arrests are newsworthy to the commercial media is that they happened in seemingly quiet Austin, rather than in Minneapolis, Madison or Chicago.  As it happened, those five to ten minutes saturated the resulting news coverage just as much as one neo-Nazi’s uniform was saturated with glitter at the rally’s conclusion.

Without a clear media strategy on the part of the anti-racists, commercial media played up the “outside agitators” angle (but only towards the anti-racists, not the out-of-town neo-Nazis), rather than focusing on why so many people made the two-hour drive from Minneapolis to add their voices to local outrage against white supremacy.

Furthermore, unfamiliarity with diverse communities and raucous protests by local journalists contributed to some shoddy reporting. The Post-Bulletin article, for instance, printed the absurd sentence that a 21-year-old transgender arrestee from the queer liberation group Bash Back! “claimed to be a boy.”

Then again, when I lived in Rochester, I didn’t know Trans 101, either.  It might’ve been partially because of my media diet.

The neo-Nazis and the cops, on the other hand, didn’t need a media strategy.  Both were extensively quoted by the commercial media, usually favorably.

Through my twitter account, I asked Austin Daily Herald reporter Mike Rose why the Herald doesn’t identify the NSM as neo-Nazis.  Admittedly, it’s a call made by editors, not individual reporters.  (One of the advantages of being an independent journalist, even an unpaid one, is that I actually get to write my own story myself.) But then Rose said this: “Should we call them Nazis? Perhaps. I don’t have a good answer for you. S. Johnson [NSM member Sam Johnson] says he’s not, but who’s to tell? Its a fine line.”

What exactly, I wonder, would the NSM have to do to cross that fine line?  Erect gas chambers?  I ask this question with all seriousness because evidently, swastikas, Hitler adoration, a designation by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, and a website (NSM88.org) filled with overt Nazi rhetoric (the very first sentence of its FAQ states that National Socialism and Nazism are the same), are not enough.

So what’s next?

Before he left, Centro Campesino’s Velez Busto talked about the next steps in the local movement for racial justice.  One thing he’d like to see is an anti-hate poster campaign amongst local businesses.  “If most businesses put them up but some don’t, what will everybody think about them?” he says.  And Centro will continue its work organizing educational events, vigils, and direct support for immigrant families.  Local media and European-Americans who want to consider themselves anti-racist should take note of this organization’s hard work and results.

Back in the Twin Cities, much thinking is to be done about what role urban activists can most effectively play in supporting rural struggles, and how white activists can best fight for immigrant rights.  Among the various analyses circulating amongst activists, I got a copy of a message from one Latino immigrant rights organizer urging his colleagues to prohibit “so-called anarchists” from future pro-immigrant events.

It’s true, many of the anti-racist demonstrators (both white folks and people of color) on Saturday were anarchists, a fact which the NSM’s McCarthy-era rhetoric about communists has yet to catch up with.  In fact, I consider myself an anarchist – an-archyliterally meaning “against unjust authority” – though I put my identities as a community member, social justice organizer and citizen journalist before that political label.  

Was the demonstration effective?  An editorial in the Austin edition of the Post-BulletinTuesday concluded that protest isn’t an effective means of bringing change.  But in reality, a quick perusal of, say, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States shows that protest and direct action, often led by anarchists, has brought about some of the most crucial reforms in this country’s history.

White and anarchist anti-racists will no doubt have to contend with these issues, and ask some hard questions about supporting a local struggle from afar. 

Rural-urban solidarity has been achieved before, perhaps most notably in the farmer-urban radical alliance described in Paul Wellstone’s book Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War.

But the fact that this debate is occurring points to an overarching, unquestionable fact: large numbers of whites, Latina/s, immigrants, city-dwellers, rural folk, anarchists, and moderates are all itching to put an end to racism.

As for the arrested anti-racists, at least two have said they plan to fight the charges next Monday in Mower County court, not half a block from Saturday’s showdown.

Then, until the next demonstration, both the neo-Nazis and anti-racists will continue to do their work in relative silence.  Unless, that is, more mediamakers and average citizens decide to cast their neutrality aside and raise their voice against white supremacy.

Born and raised in Pine island, Brian Hokanson is a volunteer citizen journalist for the Twin Cities Independent Media Center. An anarchist, he served as a member of the RNC Welcoming Committee in 2008.