Please Join Me in Thanking WSC’s Momentum Team, Who Galvanize a United Response to Hate & Political Violence
By Eric K. Ward
There’s something that gets lost when courageous leadership is acknowledged. Good leadership takes a village. It requires an organization. It’s harder to tell the story of organizations, or of the hundreds of individuals whose acts of bravery are aligned with the one person chosen as an exemplar.
That’s why two weeks ago when the Train Foundation honored me with the Civil Courage Prize, I shared four of the voices who have taught, inspired, and partnered with me in the fight against white nationalism and the rise of authoritarianism in the U.S.
This week it’s time to sing the praises of those even closer to home — the team here at Western States Center whose courage, creativity, and commitment to inclusive democracy are a primary reason that I get out of bed every morning looking forward to the work at hand. My voice is a reflection of the thousands of hours our staff puts into proving that we are not powerless in this moment of crisis.
Our Momentum team has proved exactly this: we can and we must take productive action in response to rising authoritarianism, action that shifts the terrain and galvanizes elected and civil society leaders, organizations and artists and educators, business and faith communities to defend inclusive democracy.
Our team proves every day that we can out-organize and out-communicate white nationalists while staying true to our values. That you don’t have to adopt the nature of the beast to defeat it.
Let’s take a moment to go back to the summer of 2020 in our hometown. As The Daily Kos remembers it, “Donald Trump sent an army of contracted goons from the Department of Homeland Security in to the city of Portland, Oregon, …to arrest citizens protesting against police brutality — summarily sweeping people off the street on the pretext of a kind of preventative arrest based on groundless speculation that they were ‘antifa’ conspiring to ‘burn down our cities’, as Trump put it.”
The newly released report on this fiasco was described by Oregon’s senior U.S. Senator Ron Wyden as “a stunning analysis of the incompetence and mismanagement and abuse of power during the summer of 2020.”
Our team responded with a number of strategies, including a federal lawsuit that yielded a victory for free speech protection with an injunction that restricted federal agents to a one-block area outside the federal courthouse, thereby ending a significant aspect of the federal government’s abuse of power in Portland. This legal strategy served as a model for organizers in other cities, including Oakland, CA. In May, the Biden Administration revoked the executive order used to deploy federal agents against Portland protesters.
We faced skepticism — there are many who want to focus solely on the perceived shortcomings of Portland’s leadership. We’ve acted out of the belief that Portland is Not the Problem: Political Violence Demands a National Response. Everything our Momentum team does is about responding on the ground in a way that builds national capacity to strengthen inclusive democracy.
There are so many more examples of our Momentum team’s innovative actions — please read on to share my awe and pride in their work.
MOMENTUM: GALVANIZING A UNITED RESPONSE AGAINST HATE & POLITICAL VIOLENCE
Over the past four years, Western States Center has been sounding the alarm about the threat that authoritarian social movements pose to the hard-fought social justice gains of previous generations and to our democratic institutions. To combat the growing influence of white nationalists and other authoritarian movements, we are laying the groundwork for a 21st century civil rights movement by testing and replicating novel strategies for equipping civil society leaders to close the space for hate and to advance a more inclusive democracy.
The extraordinary crises over the last year and accompanying upticks in white nationalist, paramilitary, and antisemitic activity created a challenging and highly relevant context for Western States Center’s work. From state capitols in the West to the U.S. Capitol in D.C., the normalization of political violence has served as a wake-up call to the body politic. Every day brings new examples of the ways authoritarian and extremist movements are exploiting the pandemic, climate crisis, and demonstrations for Black lives.
Building off the strategies and infrastructure that we established in prior years, and often using our hometown and state of Oregon as a testing ground, Western States Center has created a stronger blueprint for publicly uniting organizational, civic and business leaders against hate and political violence. Today, Western States Center’s value in this arena is well established. Demand from communities, organizations, municipalities, journalists, funders and institutions for our expert analysis, tools, and support has never been greater.
EQUIPPING CIVIL SOCIETY TO CLOSE THE SPACE FOR HATE IN THE PACIFIC NW & MOUNTAIN STATES
Our Momentum Program’s strategies for engaging organizational and civil society leaders and the media around inclusive democracy yielded two recent victories that demonstrate what it means to close the space for hate in our communities.
In the tense months before the Presidential election, our team mobilized a nonviolent community response to a Proud Boys rally that threatened to bring 20,000 white nationalists and paramilitary members from around the country to Portland last fall. In the lead-up to the rally, we organized 32 community organizations to issue a collective call to action. It had a meaningful impact on elected officials and inspired local community and government unity that led to a clear, moral rejection of hate and violence. The rally fizzled, reaching only about one percent of projected attendance.
Our work included framing the Proud Boys incursions into Portland with the media and acting as a source for NPR, the Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, and other national outlets. Our sign-on letter calling on elected officials to demonstrate unity against hate groups and political violence spurred an effective response. Oregon’s Governor called our effort “a clarion call” and thanked us for our leadership. The Portland Mayor and City Council issued a strong statement along with state officials which echoed many of the points in our letter. And the transportation bureau positioned traffic reader-boards stating “Hate Has No Place Here” and “Black Lives Matter” in strategic locations near the rally site.
This groundwork was not done overnight. In early 2019, we worked with Portland officials to unanimously pass a resolution condemning white supremacy, white nationalism, and alt-right hate groups. In 2020, we provided behind-the-scenes consultation on the racial justice uprising that stemmed from the George Floyd killing, and we delivered a two-part training for the Mayor, City Commissioners and all bureau senior staff on recognizing and responding to white nationalism. We are actively replicating our municipal strategy in other cities, resolutions are now on the books in Eugene, Oregon and in Boise and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and we continue to provide trainings on white nationalism and recommendations for strengthening local government response to political violence to municipal leaders across the Pacific Northwest.
Then, after a dress rehearsal for the January 6 insurrection in Oregon, we executed a successful political accountability campaign, organizing more than 25 local partners in our Oregon Inclusive Democracy Network to call on Oregon legislators to hold state Rep. Mike Nearman accountable for aiding far-right extremists in their December 21, 2020 attack on the Oregon Capitol building by expelling him from office. While anti-government extremism has been steadily accelerating in Oregon, an elected government official openly abetting illegal attacks on democratic governance marked a turning point.
We turned up the volume on elected leaders through sustained grassroots pressure; unified civil society leaders around the values of accountability, nonviolence and inclusive democracy; and framed the issue for journalists to ensure that the gravity of the issue was captured in the media. Our partner Accountable Northwest provided reporters with a blow-by-blow pictorial account of Rep. Nearman letting extremists into the state Capitol. Our news conference followed a series of briefings we held with Southern Poverty Law Center for Oregon legislators, community partners, and business leaders. These sessions provided analysis of anti-democracy threats in Oregon and opportunities for collective action.
For a legislature hampered by a GOP whose members have walked out of sessions rather than do the work of governance three years in a row, it’s truly remarkable that the Oregon legislature voted unanimously (apart from Nearman himself), in a rare bipartisan move, to remove him from office. Nearman recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges and has been banned from Capitol grounds.
Other actions by our team to galvanize a pro-democracy, values-based response by elected and civil society leaders included:
- Uniting Oregon’s business community against hate and political violence: This effort launched with my keynote address at the Portland Business Alliance’s 2021 Annual Meeting in June and was followed by our Oregonians United for Inclusive Democracy pledge supported by key businesses in the region. The pledge, which also appeared as a full-page ad in The Oregonian, invites business leaders to come together to denounce political violence and attacks on democratic institutions by committing to actions such as withholding all forms of support for political candidates that promote violence. It underscores that while we all may not agree on every issue, we do it with respect and are united in agreement that there is no place for violence in political discourse.
- In response to the January 6 insurrection, releasing an organizational statement to Defend Democracy, Not Sedition with more than 80 partners and elected leaders signed on.
- Proactively organizing more than 100 state and local elected and civil society leaders before the election around a unified statement against hate and election-related violence. Governor Brown’s amplification through her official social media channels helped carry the message across the state.
- Supporting immigrant workers, and immigrant rights and labor groups in Oregon by organizing community and elected leaders to stand in solidarity in rejecting racist and bigoted groups’ efforts to co-opt the annual May Day rally at the state capitol.
- Unifying Coloradans against hate and political violence: When Major League Baseball moved their All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in a bold statement against state legislative efforts to weaken voting rights, we joined with Southern Poverty Law Center in reaching out to Colorado leaders and groups to offer support should the game become a target for anti-democratic mobilizations. The result was Coloradans for Voter Freedom, a broad coalition pledge and community event to denounce political violence and strengthen democracy.
INCREASING GRASSROOTS SUPPORT FOR INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY
We built on the WeDefendDemocracy.org digital action platform we launched last summer to catalyze a grassroots response to threats to inclusive democracy in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States region. We amplified our efforts social media and e-news alerts, and equipped seven leadership development cohorts and three grassroots networks with analysis, shareable tools, and ongoing support to increase their impact within their local communities and constituencies:
· In the super-charged days leading into the national election we published Defending Democracy During the Election: A Guide to Messaging, Actions, and Resources and a digital toolkit that were widely utilized. This formed the basis for the response to armed voter intimidation in Lane County.
· Oregon’s largest school district drew from our Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit for the Hate Speech Protocols distributed to parents and educators in the context of civic engagement and unrest leading into and after the election.
· Responding to the January 6 insurrection, we equipped organizers with sharegraphics and 7 things to do to stand against political violence and stand up for inclusive democracy.
· Provided rapid-response strategy development, communications capacity, and peer learning opportunities to often-isolated anti-hate activists and organizers in local communities throughout the region – such as our partners on Whidbey Island outside of Seattle, Washington, who responded to local paramilitary organizing with values-based, pro-democracy messages through a published letter to the editor and joint statement from 11 faith leaders.
· Continued to build our Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Educator Network: with over 11,000 copies of our Confronting White Nationalism in Schools toolkit in circulation worldwide we’ve equipped over 160 educators and community members to deliver workshops based on the toolkit; and built a growing network of over 200 educators to pilot new response strategies to prevent students from being influenced and harassed by hateful ideologies online, in school, and in their community. See our latest six-part resource My Child is Sharing Conspiracy Theories and Racist Memes. What Do I Say?
· Disseminated biweekly Democracy Alerts that have kept over 15,000 grassroots supporters, organizations and funders up to date on the latest research, trends and analysis from our work tracking threats to American democracy. (Read the October 15 Issue #34.)
· Exposed the organized anti-immigrant movement through our Plot Against Immigrants website which received approximately 8,500 visits over the past six months and lands in the top five search results on Google for many of the figures profiled.
· Continued our fun Democracy Nightcap webcast series with a post-election debrief featuring Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, on what was happening across the country and insights from their efforts to monitor and respond to hate violence.
SHAPING THE NARRATIVE
We’ve worked with community and civic leaders, organizations, and news media throughout the country to shape the narrative around extremist actions as a backlash to the nation’s demographic changes and racial justice reckoning, and as a threat to inclusive democracy and the rights of all:
· In the nearly twelve months since the 2020 Presidential election, our insights and analysis were cited in over 240 news stories nationwide, with approximately 10% disseminated broadly through the Associated Press (see a few examples at the end of this essay).
· Thus far in 2021 our staff and Senior Fellows have participated in over 140 speaking engagements and training requests for organizations, municipalities, funders, academics, and religious institutions nationwide that have reached over 82,500 people.
· I was a featured speaker at a U.S. State Department event, Racism as a National Security Threat, called by President Biden in February.
· We commissioned DHM Research to delve into public attitudes toward white nationalism in our region and held a press briefing to share the findings with the media.
· Following are some of the press hits featuring our team. They demonstrate our voice in shaping a response to current and emerging threats to inclusive democracy, limiting the ability of false narratives to disrupt democratic practice, and signaling to the larger civil and human rights community where new fires are emerging:
Voter intimidation and threats of political violence
· Trump’s call for poll-watching volunteers sparks fear of chaos and violence on election day, The Washington Post, 9/30/20.
· Extremism Watchers Raise Concerns Over Trump Failing To Condemn White Supremacists, National Public Radio, 9/30/2020.
· How Political Violence Threatens U.S. Elections, National Public Radio, 10/15/2020.
· Cities brace for Election Day chaos, Axios, 10/20/2020.
· Experts Warn The Threat of Violence From Far-Right Groups Can Impact Racial Progress, NPR CapRadio, 10/27/2020.
· Oregon Officials Release United Statement Against White Nationalism and Voter Intimidation, Willamette Week, 10/28/2020.
January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol
· End of Trump era won’t halt extremism’s rise, experts say. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/2/2021.
· The Washington, D.C., siege has Western roots and consequences. High Country News, 1/8/2021.
· Roots Of U.S. Capitol Insurrectionists Run Through American West, NPR, 1/12/2021.
· Far-right extremists want to target more capitols, but are divided after D.C. riot. Los Angeles Times, 1/8/2021.
· Anti-Semitism seen in Capitol insurrection raises alarms. The Washington Post, 1/13/2021.
· Many State Capitols Have Security Holes, PEW, 1/11/2021.
· Guest Essays: Rejecting White Nationalism Must Be Part of The Oregon Way in The Oregon Way, 1/15/2021, What big liberal philanthropy can no longer afford to ignore, Alliance, solicited by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1/20/2021, and Truth & Reconciliation, 100 Days After the Insurrection, The Oregon Way, 4/16/2021.
White nationalists infiltrating law enforcement as a national security threat
· The Battle Over Portland, The New Yorker Radio Hour, 10/9/2020.
· Racial Bias in U.S. Policing is a National Security Threat, by Eric K. Ward, Southern Poverty Law Center, 1/12/21.
· Concerns about Far-Right Activity, Veteran Recruitment on Rise, Public News Service, 7/2/21.
Far right groups exploiting the pandemic to build political power
· The QAnon Belief System Is Funneling Oregonians to Some Dark and Radical Places, Willamette Week, 9/30/2020.
· When QAnon Stormed City Hall, Bloomberg News, 2/5/2021.
· Idaho’s Republicans in political civil war as state lurches further right The Guardian, 6/7/2021.
· Far right groups in Northwest find fertile ground in COVID-19 protests. Oregon Public Broadcasting, 12/4/2020.
· Right-wing Idaho activists burn masks, claiming COVID restrictions infringe on liberties. Los Angeles Times, 3/6/2021.
· Opinion: Reverse racism is a myth, Los Angeles Times High School Insider, 9/13/2020.
· Essays: Conspiracy Theories are Killing Us, America published on Medium, 2/24/21 and A Year of COVID-19: The Good, Bad & Ugly published on The Oregon Way, 3/12/2021.
The growing threat of anti-democracy groups
· Opinion: Shutting Down White Nationalist Movements, Extremism and the Myths That Surround Them, BET, 10/5/2020.
· Extremism expert: Idaho critical race theory debate is ‘cynical’ effort to rally voters. Idaho Capital Sun, 6/11/2021.
· The growing white supremacist threat The Week, 2/7/21.
· Far-right groups, feeling support from Trump, find fertile recruiting ground in the Northwest, Los Angeles Times, 9/30/2020.
· Capitol Attack Could Fuel Extremist Recruitment For Years, Experts Warn The New York Times, 1/16/21.
· With memories of 2020 armed protests, Michigan lawmakers fear weekend violence at state Capitol, Reuters, 1/13/21.
· Ammon Bundy/People’s Rights, CNN, 3/19/21.
Painting a positive vision for the future
· Eric Ward: Singing a Different Tune, Telling A Different Story, The Oregon Way, 10/6/2020.
· Are We Moving Towards a Better Society or Regressing? Moment Magazine, Sept/Oct 2020.
· Welcome to the Future: It’s Time to Act Like Winners, Medium, 11/18/2020.
· The Soundtrack of the 21st Century Civil Rights Movement: Music That Tells a Different Story, Medium, 7/8/2021.
Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.
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