Reflections on Being a Public Enemy
A few weeks ago, my state representative wrote me a letter accusing me of treason. My alleged crime: making a $10 donation to one of the most widely respected civic organizations in the country.
I can assure you that I am still as surprised to be typing that sentence as you are to be reading it. Clearly, this is a story that requires some context. Here it is:
In November of 2016, my representative in the Georgia state legislature (Mr. Jason Spencer, GA-180), proposed HB3—a bill that would have (among other restrictions) made it a criminal offense for Muslim women to wear religious veils while driving or appearing in public places. Under this proposed law, many Muslim women in our state would have to choose: would they violate their faith, or would they violate the law? Every outing to the grocery store, to work, to the mosque, or to their child’s soccer practice would become a terrible moral dilemma imposed upon them by the state. Adding insult to injury, Representative Spencer sought to make these prohibitions by expanding an existing anti-masking statute from 1951 that was designed to restrict the use of white hoods by the Ku Klux Klan. Representative Spencer proposed this expansion of that statute under the pretense that Muslim veils represent an imminent public threat in the same way that white hoods do; he reasoned that being Muslim in public should be treated as legally equivalent to and as dangerous as signaled membership in the KKK.
In interviews, Representative Spencer weakly claimed that the bill “does not contain language that specifically targets any group.” In those same interviews, however, Spencer said that he wrote the bill as “a response to constituents that do have concerns of the rise of Islamic terrorism.” Whether or not the bill contains the kind of specific language that Representative Spencer dodged around, the intent and potential impact of the bill have never been in question. Furthermore, Representative Spencer has a long history of making anti-Muslim statements and promoting harmful conspiracy theories about Muslims on social media. He has promoted the idea that Islam may not be a religion, but rather merely “theologically sanctioned violence.” He has proclaimed that “we are in a new age Crusade.” He has even tolerated threats of violence against Muslims from commenters on his social media. A commenter recently wrote “Deport them [Muslims]. If they won’t leave kill them.” Even though Representative Spencer regularly responds to comments, he was silent in this ominous case and many others like it. Sometimes, his responses were worse than his silence. When a commenter, in reference to an article shared by Spencer about a Muslim immigrant accused of a crime, stated that “they will stop killing when we kill them,” Representative Spencer replied “I am afraid you are right.”
I strenuously object to HB3, to the broad suspicion that Representative Spencer casts upon Muslims, and to the room that he has made for threatening anti-Muslim discourses. In December, I wrote him a letter expressing my disapproval of HB3 and my disappointment with his behavior on social media. At the close of my letter, I indicated that I would begin contributing donations to the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). I chose to donate to CAIR because it is a nationally recognized and widely respected organization that protects the civil rights of Muslims in America, but I also chose to donate to them because they had been specifically subjected to Representative Spencer’s bigotry. When Representative Spencer originally proposed HB3, the leaders of CAIR Georgia reached out to him with a warm invitation to meet with them so that they could have the chance to build a relationship with him and to listen to his concerns before sharing their own. They thanked him for his service to the state of Georgia and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving. Representative Spencer replied: “I don’t meet with terrorist organizations.”
CAIR is a widely respected civil rights organization that has partnered with the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, the US Commission on Civil Rights, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It has received bipartisan praise and recognition in Georgia from Republican Senator Johnny Isakson to Democratic Representative (and Civil Rights Movement hero) John Lewis alike. The U.S. government does not and has never considered CAIR a terrorist organization, as recently reaffirmed by former Secretary of State John Kerry. CAIR has not faced any criminal charges in its history. Its regional offices and leaders have won countless awards for effective, community-based advocacy work and for developing exceptional civic engagement models. At the same time that CAIR works to protect the civil liberties of Muslims against unconstitutional government intrusions, they remain cooperative with the FBI. They denounce violence in all circumstances. Representative Spencer’s remarks were utterly libelous and, in my view, actively endanger the lives of the Georgians who work for CAIR by improperly labeling them in a way that is likely to bring harm to them. It is neither normal nor acceptable for a public official to use their office as a platform to make such dangerous and legally baseless claims; such declarations recall the McCarthyism of another era. Representative Spencer’s decision to make these claims was (and remains) a grossly irresponsible and factually bankrupt overreach.
When I placed my letter in the mail, I was not under any illusion that my words would change Representative Spencer’s mind. Nonetheless, I wanted him to know that people in his district paid attention, cared, and disagreed with him. I expected that I would receive a form letter in response—something insubstantial talking about how Representative Spencer is always glad to hear from constituents and is proudly serving District 180, etc. I was not prepared for what actually arrived in my mailbox.
In his custom reply to me, Representative Spencer doubled down on his poorly sourced and inaccurate claims about CAIR. He forcefully (and fancifully) added that my “financial support for dishonest organizations like CAIR…could possibly be an act that ‘knowingly provides material support’ for known terrorist organization” and that my $10 donation “could be considered a treasonous act.” He closed the letter with: “I intend to bring a similar bill [HB3] in the future when the time is right. Unfortunately, more individuals will have to die and the hands of radical jihadists, for which you have shamefully given financial support, in order for this legislation to be reconsidered. The enemies of America are patient, but so am I.” He shared the letter in full on his social media.
As someone deeply committed to public service work, I never anticipated that I would be accused of treason by my representative—but then again, these are times that I never expected to live in, either. Nationwide, the poisonous politics of fear and exclusion have become a popular currency for procuring and justifying power. As a matter of principle, what are we to do when our elected officials govern in absolutes, traffic in conspiracy theories, and tolerate propositions of violence against minority groups? What are we to do when our leaders act with malicious and discriminatory intent, or at best lack the moral courage to oppose those who do? Reflecting on these questions has only made me bolder and more committed to resisting the normalization of such bigotry and hatred in our society. It is our job to hold our representatives accountable for their action and their words, and if they are unwilling or unable to uphold the most precious values and freedoms of our society, then it is the responsibility of the people to safeguard them until those representatives no longer hold office. We must look out for one another, show up for one another, speak up for one another, believe and trust in one another. Doing so is not always easy. Representative Spencer’s dark letter made me uncomfortable, but my comfort is not worth the lives of my Muslim neighbors in Georgia. The same could be said of my support for Black Lives, for my LGBT family, for undocumented people, and for so many others besides. In times when those with power wield it as a weapon, protecting targeted populations requires more from privileged groups than what is necessarily comfortable.
I know this from my time studying and internalizing the life of Andrew Goodman. There is nothing that I take more seriously than having Andy’s name tied to mine. In my role as a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and in my private civic life, I constantly think of his example and ask myself: “Are you doing enough? How can you do more?” I spend a lot of time thinking about James Chaney these days, too. Andrew Goodman bravely stood between white supremacists and the violent order that they sought to uphold. James Chaney never had a choice—he was always caught in the way. He was always the target. As I think about the growing animosity toward various groups today, including Muslims, I recognize that it is a luxury for me to decide whether or not to speak up and to stand in the way of hatred and violence that is not directed at me. It is my privilege to exist comfortably outside the target of these kinds of discourses and proposed laws. In my view, this makes it all the more important for me to try to live like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner did—to recognize my place as a privileged outsider and to still follow and be with those who are most in harm’s way.
The Andrew Goodman Foundation is decidedly non-partisan, but that does not mean that it is non-principled. To remain silent and impartial in the face of injustice would be to betray the memory of Andrew Goodman. So I will keep writing. I will keep voting. I will keep calling. I will keep organizing. I will keep educating. I will keep confronting. I will keep learning. I will keep listening. I will keep studying. I will keep marching. I will keep protesting. I will keep mobilizing. And I will keep donating. And I will keep sending Representative Spencer my receipts.
The work continues, and I will keep doing it even if that means that I am lumped in with the “enemies” of Representative Spencer’s warped vision for America. It’s a badge that I’ll wear proudly, and it’s a fuel that will keep me working harder in the years to come.
About the Author
Dana Sweeney is a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and senior at the University of Alabama. He’s currently studying English. Upon graduation, Dana hopes to pursue a Masters in Public Policy and work on progressive political organizing and policy development in the South.