Saturday’s tragedy in Arizona has everyone talking about the hateful and dangerous political rhetoric that dominates our airwaves. A complex set of factors is being analyzed from the personal to the political to determine the precise motivation for Loughner’s rampage. Colorlines.com editor Kai Wright has already pointed out that the dangerous rhetoric we are dissecting started long before Sarah Palin and Glen Beck were in the spotlight. He writes,
The question is not whether Palin’s rhetoric has gone too far; plainly it has. The question is whether the right’s government-vs.- the people ideology has reached its natural climax: a government that cannot function enough to keep us safe and a nation defined by anger at itself. At what point will that be understood for the self-destruction that it is?
One thing is for sure, we cannot afford to move on from this moment without acknowledging that no matter what set off Loughner, dehumanizing language and hateful narratives have been threatening the right of many to live without fear for a very long time. We saw the link between rhetoric and violence play out last summer when the debate over Park 51, a proposed Islamic community center and mosque in downtown New York, surfaced fear and anti-Muslim sentiment. A sad, sobering moment came when 21-year-old student Michael Enright stabbed New York City taxi driver Ahmed Sharif, after confirming he was Muslim.
Following the incident, Jamilah King reported on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s findings that anti-Latino hate crimes were on the rise across the country as anti-immigrant fervor grew over SB 1070 in Arizona. Here’s a sampling of incidents also highlighted by the SPLC:
- In June, Gary Thomas Kelley was charged with second-degree murder for shooting and killing Juan Varela in Phoenix. Before shooting Varela, Kelley argued with him and his brother Antonio, yelling, “You fucking Mexican, go back to Mexico!” Varela, a U.S. citizen, was third-generation Mexican American. He left behind a wife and young daughter.
- In July, Thomas Hanson was charged with malicious harassment, (Washington state’s hate crime law) for aiming a gun at Sergio Zapata-Zurita’s family and threatening to shoot them. It all started when Hanson’s neighbors asked him to lower the volume on his music. According to the Auburn Reporter, Hanson had also sent Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell more than 200 emails, some of which included rants against “illegal” immigration and immigrants from Mexico. The Reporter’s coverage also mentions that, “Inside Hanson’s trailer, according to charging papers, Auburn police later found six handguns and four rifles, several of them loaded.”
- In August, in Baltimore, Jermaine Holley was charged with first and second degree murder, assault and racial harassment. Holley’s victim was Martin Reyes, a father of six originally from Honduras. The Baltimore Sun reported that “Holley’s weapon was a wooden stake that he had yanked out of a sidewalk, where it had been propping up a tree.” Holley, who’d previously been commited and treated for schizophrenia, told police that he “hated Mexicans.” The murder happened after a rash of violence against Latinos in east Baltimore, with five violent crimes in a span of two weeks.
A Colorlines.com search on TV trends reveals that the use of the word “illegals” quadrupled on television from 2009 to 2010, with a spike in the summer of 2010. It’s clear that the word is poisoning our environment and seeding hate. It culminated in one of the most racist campaign seasons in decades, as our publisher Rinku Sen wrote, in which conservative candidates competed to produce the most openly racist anti-immigrant television ads. Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle may have won the competition, though she ended up learning that hate does not always win the race.
Hate loses only when we do something about it. When we do not allow it. Our regard for human life is incompatible with images and messages that tell us some lives are worth less than others. It’s urgent. It’s time we hold ourselves, media and elected officials accountable for upholding our most basic values. Shutting down the hate and calling out racism are only part of what we will accomplish with the Drop the I-Word campaign. Most importantly, we are following the lead of courageous human beings, undocumented and unafraid, as they demand that their dignity be recognized in this extremely hostile climate. It’s urgent.
We can stop the hate machine together and prevent further tragedies by demanding that all media stop dehumanizing human beings with the slur “illegals.” If you have not yet signed the pledge, sign it now at droptheiword.com.