Citizen Green: Terror and identity in the age of Trump

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What concept of “heritage” might induce a convoy of people waving Confederate battle flags to drive up to a home where a group of people, mostly black, are celebrating a child’s birthday, and to point a shotgun at them while yelling racial slurs and making death threats is unfathomable.

The fact that one of the persons terrorizing the birthday party while promoting “Confederate heritage” holds a Spanish surname is confusing, to put it mildly.

Last week, Jose I. Torres and Kayla Rae Norton, an unmarried couple who have three children together, were sentenced to 20 and 13 years respectively for their part in terrorizing the birthday party, which took place in a suburb west of Atlanta.

A judge found them guilty of not only making terrorist threats, but violating Georgia’s street-gang law. The New York Times characterizes the application of the street gang law as “an unusual legal maneuver,” while noting that “legal experts said they could not recall other instances in which a similar statute had been used to prosecute a Confederate heritage group in the Deep South.”

The public preoccupation with street gangs is heavily racialized, with attention focused on black and brown groups like the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings. The notion of street gangs terrorizing American communities has become a trope of law enforcement and prosecution-speak. In this case, the activities of Torres and Norton, who were reportedly members of a group called Respect the Flag, actually seem to fit the charge.

Let’s just take a moment to recognize the Douglas County District Attorney’s office for equal application of the law and at least mitigating the suspicion that Georgia’s street-gang law is a tool of racial oppression.

Norton expressed remorse at the sentencing, reportedly telling some of the victims: “What happened to you is absolutely awful. From mother to mother, I cannot imagine having to explain what that word means.”

The story in the Sunday Times doesn’t reference the word in question, but presumably it begins with “N.” It’s also unclear whether Norton had difficulty imagining a black parent explaining to a child what it means to be black, or explaining how another human being could weaponize a word with hatred for purposes of intimidating and degrading a group of people based on race.

One of the ironies of the Torres-Norton saga is that the crime occurred in 2015 during the era of Barack Obama, a mixed-race president whose presidency seemed to induce acute racial anxiety among many white people. The judgment rendered against the couple’s terrifying act came down at the beginning of the era of Donald Trump, who built his campaign around nostalgia for a more racially homogenous past and fears of outsiders, primarily Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

One of the huge questions now looming over this country in the wake of Trump’s election is whether the United States is moving towards a more tribal society. It’s evident that white America — particularly those who are not part of academia, tech, cultural production, media and the liberal political establishment — is in open revolt against multiculturalism. But what about everyone else?

Will the pressures of Trump’s aggressive policies cause people feeling threatened to unite in common cause? Or will the former constituencies of the Obama mosaic retreat into their own corners? Will black people worried about the Justice Department giving carte blanche to racist policing conclude that intersectionality is an unaffordable luxury? Will American Muslims adopt a more insular outlook in response to slanders against their religion and threats of violence? Will immigrant families overwhelmed by the prospect of families being broken apart move back into the shadows? Will LGBTQ people narrowly focus energy on preserving marriage equality? Will the women’s movement focus on preserving access to abortion, to the exclusion of all other issues?

There are some hopeful signs that under pressure, the bonds of mutuality defining the multicultural idea are holding up.

Immigrant protesters, many of them undocumented, chanted the slogan “Black lives matter” in front of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in downtown Greensboro on Feb. 16. They also modified a chant of, “Hey let’s be clear, immigrants welcome here,” with versions that substituted the words “refugees” and “Muslims” for “immigrants.”

Hamdy Radwan, the imam at Annoor Islamic Center in Clemmons, made a similar expression of solidarity during his Friday sermon on Feb. 24. Radwan’s message was directed at both his congregation and hundreds of people from the community who poured in to show support for Muslims in the face of Islamaphobic bigotry and threats. While pleading for interfaith understanding, Radwan expressed sadness about the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the St. Louis suburbs.

“Anyone who attacks the sacredness of human life should be called a terrorist,” the imam said. “Everyone should stand against terrorism because that is not an Islamic behavior, not a Christian behavior, not a human behavior. We should not tolerate it. We should all of us be against it.”