On Liberal Racism

The Co-op and the Hate Group: Part Two

Michael I. Niman (11/14/05)

Last weekend Lexington Co-op held a frustrating but extraordinarily predictable community forum to discuss “policy issues” surrounding their selling of products baked by the Twelve Tribes / Common Ground international hate group (for more information see http://mediastudy.com/articles/av10-20-05.html).

Following what has become a rigid script around the United States, the Twelve Tribes, on cue, shipped John Stringer, the black man who appears on their website, to Buffalo, where he stood in front of about 100 Co-op community members and opened his presentation, by asking, “What do you see standing up here?” He went on to explain that they were looking at “a black man,” and implored them to ask themselves, “Do you think I’m stupid enough to live with a racist group?” I don’t know about “stupid.” “Self-loathing” is what popped into my mind. One of the audience members confronted Stringer with a statement from the Twelve Tribes’ leader, Elbert Spriggs, arguing that slavery promoted respect in the antebellum south. Spriggs verified that the quote was indeed accurate, and that he supported it. Most shocking, however, was the lack of response from the co-op membership.

Of course John Stringer isn’t the first person to follow the well worn tradition of surrendering to and internalizing oppression. Another member stood in front of the crowd and claimed to be a Jew – hence the group couldn’t be anti-Semitic. The Jew, upon closer examination, however, like the purported Jew on the group’s website, turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian. When you scratch the surface, however, all of the Twelve Tribes members claim to be Jews. Religious Studies scholars refer to this belief as “British Israelism” – the belief that it is your group who are the “real” Jews – and the real Jews are imposters.

The Twelve Tribes brought 20 members from across the northeast – essentially the rapid response team that flies off to trouble spots. The meeting format didn’t allow for any meaningful dialog – just a cross-fire of 60 second sound-bites without the ability to probe the group’s answers. This is too bad, since many folks came prepared to question members about their leader, Elbert Spriggs, who is on record supporting the African slave trade and the beating of slaves as well as celebrating the killing of Martin Luther King. Personally, I was given only 60 seconds to question the group. After a question about how they feel on Gay marriage, I followed up their answer (they don’t support Gay marriage, of course) by asking them to explain statements made by their leader, Elbert Spriggs, supporting gay bashing and the killing of homosexuals. Quoting Leviticus, Spriggs says, “[homosexuals] must be put to death. Homosexuality is a capitol offense.” Spriggs explains that “loathing is the response of normal human beings to the homosexual…. that response brings about people worthy of the name human.” Homosexuals, he goes on, “deserve to die.”

The group’s response wasn’t quite clear. They have gay folks over for dinner, but they don’t kill them, and they don’t advocate killing them. But do they condone gay bashing, as Sprigg’s statement indicates? The meeting format didn’t allow for a discussion on this. Nor did it allow time for one member to ask the group to explain what they mean by “shortening the life” of stubborn children.

Benjamin Joplin, a co-op member and U.B. English department doctoral candidate, also never got a chance to speak. Joplin is a co-op member whose brother is a member of the Twelve Tribes. According to Joplin, “My brother and others in his Twelve Tribes community have said to my family privately that no one in good conscience would be gay, and that slavery was a good thing.” Joplin, whose research involves the study of homophobia, argues that the group’s public and private personas are quite different.

After a half hour of one minute questions and responses, the Twelve Tribes members argued that it was them who were the victim of hate, and not the people whose beating and enslavement they advocated, or whose murder their leader condones. Though I can’t quite provide a body count, there was an audible cheer in support of the ‘beleaguered’ Tribes as they explained that they now fear for their lives and face the threat of bodily harm, following ArtVoice’s publication of my article. Granted, it was a minority of co-op members who applauded as the Tribes attempted to paint themselves as the victims, but the majority of members acquiesced to that applause with their polite silence.

The Problem With Liberals

This is the problem with liberals. They seem to value decorum over content. Over and over, co-op members described the Twelve Tribes as being “friendly. There is nothing friendly, however, about anti-Semitism, misogyny, child beating, gay bashing or any of the other isms the Tribes promote. The confusion here is between “polite, well mannered,” and “friendly.” For many in the co-op crowd, polite is good enough. And calling someone on their racist beliefs is not polite. Hence, so to speak, they shoot the bearer of the discomforting message. The problem, is that often hatred is not packaged in an ugly wrapping and that the hate-monger doesn’t physically resemble a comic book monster.

In that vein the discussion shifted at the end of the meeting to ArtVoice as “the real hate group,” with one member waving a copy of the newspaper around demanding that it, and not the Twelve Tribes products, be banned from the co-op. This is exactly the response I feared when I wrote the article – that the co-op would ban the distribution of ArtVoice on their property, much as Panos did after ArtVoice questioned the restaurant’s plans to demolish a historic structure situated next door. This threat to hamper distribution or withhold advertising because a writer questions the co-op’s relationship with a hate group, is a clear attack on freedom of the press. It also demonstrates in no uncertain terms why there is so little investigative reporting in our advertising-driven media environment. Yet, at the co-op meeting, this suggestion was also met with cheers and applause. The speaker went on to explain that he found my article more offensive and racist than the Twelve Tribes, due to my attack on John Stringer – a black man. The meeting format didn’t allow for a response.

Despite an outbreak of liberal fascism – where appearance and adherence to arbitrary rules are more valuable than content and information – most of the co-op members opposed the Twelve Tribes, and seemed to want their products pulled from the store’s shelves. But their reasoning was often problematic. Many members, for example, blanketly tarred the group as being Fundamentalist Christians, and explained that is why the co-op shouldn’t sell their bread. That reasoning, however, just exhibits a religious bias. I don’t oppose the group because they are Fundamentalist Christians – I oppose them because they advocate hate – a point I explained to them as we exchanged polite greetings. One member argued that whenever possible, the co-op should refrain from buying products from any group that advocates a belief in a higher power. This type of religious discrimination is exactly what I am arguing against when I oppose the Twelve Tribes and their anti-Semitism. At the co-op meeting, this statement served as a diversion, shifting the conversation to religious freedom (though, not apparently, for Jews), framing the Twelve Tribes, rightfully so, as being discriminated against.

So here we are. Two months after I presented my research to the co-op board, and for the record, 30 months after I initially gave this information to the co-op’s grocery manager in June of 2003, the Lexington Co-op is still selling Twelve Tribes / Common Ground products, and still funneling money into an organization that is spreading a message of hate around the world. Co-op members tell me that the “process” is long and difficult – such is democracy and such is cooperative governance. This is a cop-out. You can’t blame the co-op’s continued support of a hate group on democracy. My doctoral dissertation was an ethnographic study of a nonhierarchical communal group, published as a book by the University of Tennessee Press (People of the Rainbow). I understand and recognize cooperative governance – and have not seen an effective example of it at the Lexington Co-op. The problem is not democracy. The problem is the Lexington Co-op.

ęCopyright 2005

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