I was a 6th grader at Clara Barton Elementary School in 1976. The school bus I rode everyday was a multi-racial smorgasbord of young kids who were excited to get to school so that we could shoot marbles or show off our newest toy before class started. It was on one of those days, on my way to school, that I was told something that changed my life forever.
On a Monday morning one of my school mates whispered that the previous weekend neo-Nazis protested against Jews and blacks in one of the parks that we passed along our way to school and that it had been in the paper. No one really talked about it much, and I’m sure that the conversation quickly turned to our favorite television shows, but from that day forward this park took on a sinister form in my mind.
While the conversation ended, I never forgot it. I also never ventured into that park even though I lived in Long Beach another eleven years. Who would have ever thought that a small group of neo-Nazis would succeed in limiting my America? At age eleven I was already being taught who was an American and what America should look like- in short – a lesson in belonging.
I’ve always been hesitant about sharing this story beyond a few of my closest friends. Mainly, I’ve always thought that people would respond to my story with “it was just a few malcontents,” and “there was no need to take them seriously.” I think that the recent media coverage to the assassination plot against presidential candidate Barack Obama proves me right. The problem wasn’t the neo Nazis in the park; the problem is the unwillingness of America to take them seriously.
According to the Jackson-Sun, “Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman planned to go state to state to kill 88 people and behead 14 black people, according to federal authorities”. To neo-Nazis, 14 means the number of words in a defining statement about protecting the white race and preserving its future. Eighty-eight means the letter H twice - as in “Heil Hitler.” Afterwards, according to the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), Cowart and Schlesselman planned on targeting presidential candidate Barack Obama.
While the public, political pundits, and even some law enforcement officials have been quick to downplay the actions of Cowart and Schlesselman using words such as “unlikely,” “unsophisticated,” and “bizarre”, these individuals are making a case for who they believe is an American. I can’t help but think back to 2006 when seven men who thought they were working with al-Qaida (but in actuality an FBI informant) were arrested in a plot against Chicago’s Sears Tower.
I can’t help but to ask if Coward and Schlesselman had been self-proclaimed Muslims would these same political pundits and law enforcement officials find themselves so blasé? Would the public write it off as “stupid kids who weren’t serious?”
This double standard says much about identity in America and who has the right to belong. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, hate crimes targeting those perceived to be Muslim or Arab soured in the United States. Taxi drivers were assaulted, children were harassed and Muslim religious sites in the U.S. were vandalized.
Six years earlier on April 19, 1995 a young man by the name of Timothy McVeigh, who self-identified as a “white Christian”, drove a truck bomb into a federal building killing 168 people and injuring over eight hundred. I often ask my friends who identify as “white,” or “Christian” if they felt unsafe sending their children to school, or nervous about going to work, or attending church because they thought they might be targeted by those upset at Timothy McVeigh. All agreed that they never even considered themselves in danger for being associated with Timothy McVeigh.
At the end of McVeigh’s trial, one of the jurors expressed this sense of belonging by saying that she “had the hardest time convicting McVeigh, he seemed like he could be my next door neighbor or someone I would let date my daughter.” In the recent assassination plot against Barack Obama and the targeting of over 100 African Americans these same sentiments were expressed when Lacy Doss, a former classmate of Cowart’s said, “He was a nice person, to me anyway.”
Deep down the majority of the American public is willing to make allowances for those they believe belong. As a young black child on his way to school, I always wished that this same American public would let me belong by taking these threats seriously, too.