Thanks to Glenn Hurst for sharing this inspiring story of local activism. -promoted by desmoinesdem
Not long after Charlottesville, the Nazi menace attempted to slither into peaceful rural Iowa; Oakland, Iowa to be precise. As I laid fingers to keyboard, another ugly head attempted to sprout in northwest Iowa’s heavily Republican Sioux County. We took the same tactics spelled out here and successfully reproduced the protest in this Republican stronghold.
I had just emceed the vigil for Charlottesville held in Omaha a few weeks prior to the Oakland event. I was also providing the media coordination for the upcoming DACA event (scheduled for the following week) when murmurs about an anti-Islamic group snaking into Pottawattamie County started to get louder. Rallying against hate was becoming all too common.
As a “bi-coastal” family (my family has lived on both sides of the Missouri River for the past year), I was a founding member of Indivisible Nebraskans. I was also an early organizer with my local Indivisible Iowa group, covering Iowa Senate district 11 and House districts 21 and 22. With those groups, I had plenty of opportunity to learn how to organize a rally, get the media’s attention, lead some chants and call members to action.
Because of my early involvement and some media attention, I was a visible face in these organizations. I got used to getting random notifications from concerned individuals about issues pertinent to our resistance. It is difficult to recall exactly how the Oakland event came to my attention, but it immediately struck a deep chord.
UNDERSTANDING THE THREAT
The event, Understanding the Threat, was advertised as a lesson about Muslim extremist groups. A peek into the snakes’ den quickly revealed that this program rapidly turns to an anti-Islamic hate-fest. The presenters advocate the stripping of constitutional rights from all Muslims and the criminalization of the practice of Islam. It smacked of Nazi propaganda. Just change the term from Jew to Muslim and the rhetoric was interchangeable with that of the Third Reich.
The resumes of the presenters were like skins they kept trying to shed. They were littered with criminal charges: alleged battery of a Minnesota sheriff, discharge from the FBI for sexual harassment, known conspiracy theory propagation, and consorting with fringe militant groups and 88 Tactical Elite. They had a history of presenting themselves as a training program for law enforcement, but had been removed from multiple training events once their hate-content was exposed.
The Center for New Community out of Washington, DC contacted us when they heard of our possible resistance action. They shared a toolkit for grassroots organizing and their experience with the Understanding the Threat organization. Their information regarding the soiled reputation of both presenters and the Global Faith Initiative confirmed our own research. This was well-documented hate speech presented under the false pretense of authority.
The shock of this particular event was not just due to its content and presenters. It was amplified by the host groups listed in its initial press release. One group, the Global Faith Initiative, had a reputation of Islamic intolerance with its vocal opposition to the inclusion of a Mosque in the Tri-faith Initiative in Omaha. Their participation was no surprise.
The second host was the unexpected fang: the Pottawattamie County Republican Party. We were certain this could not be true. Had this hate group duped the Republicans?
“Perhaps not,” was the answer.
A Google search confirmed that The Republican Party of Rapid City, South Dakota had recently backed and hosted this same program. Maybe this was the direction of the new Republican Party? A few inquiries to the Republican Party leadership in Pottawattamie County provided some answers.
They reported that the county chairman, Jeff Jorgensen, had indeed brought the idea of hosting and promoting the event to the County Party Central Committee and Executive Committee. These committees had voted in bloc against his proposal. In spite of the vote, the chairman issued a press release to the contrary. The content of the release was confirmed by Ryan Matheny of KMA radio:
Jeff Jorgensen reached out to us. Here is the text of his email:
“Pottawattamie County Republicans are promoting an event hosted by The Global Faith Institute and 88 Tactical Elite Training Organization called ‘UNDERSTANDING THE THREAT – THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD’S SECRET STRATEGIES FOR THE USA.’ Attached and embedded is the news release for this event.”
Discussion began between myself, local Indivisible leaders Jackie Steiber-Cordon and Annaleah Moore, and a group of spiritual leaders from Glenwood, IA. We all wanted to respond to the event. Though each of us had a different idea of how that protest should look, we all agreed that the goal should be to shut down the event. After a short discussion, we decided to each respond in our own ways but to keep dialogue open with regards to the developments. We would keep each other informed of our individual responses and cooperate where possible on our ultimate goal of preventing the event from occurring.
To stop the event, we began a concerted effort to overwhelm the venue and to pressure the Republican Party to rein in their rouge leader. I reached out to supporters of my campaign for Pottawattamie County supervisor and to the Indivisible and Women’s March networks across the state, asking them to register for the event. We hoped to take up all the tickets and thus end the spread of their hate mongering. This tactic appeared to have worked to scuttle the Donald Trump event in Cedar Rapids Iowa earlier this year. But this time, we did not get the same result. The event allowed for unlimited ticketing. Though they did not know which registrations were legitimate, it did not lead to a cancellation.
At the same time, we encouraged individuals to begin a phone campaign to the county party leadership asking them to make a public statement against the event and to pull the plug on it if possible. We also notified the local press of the Republican Party connection to the event and their lack of effort to stop it. This action met with some success, but not a cancellation. Within eight hours of when we started calling, GOP leaders contacted me directly, begging me to “make the calls stop.” They had been overwhelmed.
The party leadership claimed to have been contacted by more than 25 media outlets. The constant phone calls were huge disruptions to their lives and their jobs. Unfortunately, the Pottawattamie Republican Party Executive Committee was unable to bring their chairman into alignment with their vote. Through tears, they assured me they had been making statements to the press against the event and denying their support. This denial did not stop at the local party level; it was also echoed by the state party. The County Chairman was being hung out to dry.
To me, the local party leadership claimed that the actions of their chair were a source of embarrassment and in direct violation of their previous votes. I was told that they could not comment on internal responses to his actions but that I could rest assured it would be addressed according to their by-laws. I believe that Jorgensen’s recent resignation as Pottawattamie GOP chairman is the direct result of that action. Sadly, other Republicans have not taken credit for his ousting.
After the call from the party denouncing the event, the focus of the phone campaign was then directed at Jorgensen himself and the co-host, Mark Christian of the Global Faith Initiative in Omaha. We reached out to Omaha-based groups who assisted the campaign and were able to get the Understanding the Threat event that was scheduled in Lincoln, Nebraska cancelled. They placed pressure on the Pizza Ranch in Lincoln where the event was to be held and the management withdrew the space from Understanding the Threat.
The event in Oakland was scheduled in a community-owned facility. For that reason, the facility could not cancel without possibly provoking a lawsuit related to free speech infringement. The deposit had been paid, and the local government had concerns about the legal risk to the community if they attempted to withdraw the use of the facility. The local religious leadership had come to a similar conclusion regarding this hate-event. Though they did not support it, they felt their best option was to ignore it and discourage their congregations from attending.
All this time, as we attempted stop the event, the Indivisible groups and religious leaders were preparing for a traditional protest outside the event, while I prepared to lead the demonstration inside the event. Each protest had its own Facebook event and the events were shared on each other’s pages. Joint press releases went out to the local news outlets as well as to national media outlets. Activists made phone calls to news directors and individual reporters at all television and print media the day before the event.
Groups such as Women’s Walk, Our Revolution, Indivisible, and the Iowa Democratic Party and its county chapters were asked to publicize the events, which they did with enthusiasm. But support did not stop there. My campaign webpage began to light up with hits from across the country, and donations were being made via my Actblue account. Individuals contributed money to cover the cost of the ice cream we planned to serve at the conclusion of the event. The pressure was mounting as our numbers grew.
With our primary goal of cancellation becoming unattainable, we focused on the next goals: limit the hateful message’s exposure and demonstrate the proper response. If we could not stop the event, we could discourage people from entering the building by lining the sidewalk with protesters. For those who did brave the event, we could demonstrate how to ignore ignorance and hate speech.
We had all registered to attend as part of our attempt to overwhelm the event. It was listed as public, so we felt confident we would not be denied seats. I had called Mark Christian of the Global Faith Initiative earlier, and while we had a heated discussion, he assured me he would welcome me with open arms. Protesters were warned that the reception might include closed fists from his supporters, being spit upon, or verbally assaulted.
We met the Indivisible protesters an hour before the event. The Indivisible groups and religious leaders gathered outside the venue, holding signs advising people against attending and educating them about the false hate speech they would witness. They stood peacefully outside as the hours of hateful venom was directed at the audience, and they ushered each attendee from the event until the doors of the facility were closed. (You can see many more photos on this video.)
The local media had turned out in force: three television stations and multiple print journalists attending and making a record of the event. The media had been barred from filming or even being in the room during the program, so the Indivisible members spoke with them and shared the messages we were sending from inside.
My campaign led the protest inside the venue. Ahead of time, we had advised people in our group to refrain from communication with the presenters and other attendees. We were there to ignore, not debate false narratives. Protesters were also encouraged to obey the police if arrested.
When we entered the Oakland Community Center, the front row was almost completely open. There were still plenty of seats available throughout the room as well. It was fifteen minutes before the scheduled start, and the room that held about 60 people was well populated. The threat of violence was mitigated as much as possible by making sure our supporters sat in groups.
Most of the attendees were people who had come from Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska or Council Bluffs, Iowa. This was confirmed when I walked the room and spoke with each individual and asked how far they had come. I let anyone who was willing to listen know who I was, why I was there, and what we would be doing. We were each armed with a newspaper to hold up and read and ear plugs which most of us wore throughout the event. Some watched videos on their mobile devices, which garnered the ire of the presenters who thought they were being filmed.
Shortly after the program began, Jeff Jorgensen introduced himself as chairman of the Pottawattamie County Republican Party and started issuing threats to the silent protesters. One protester had to instruct Jorgensen to remove his hand from his shoulder. When he came to me, his breath was hot in my ear and through his clenched teeth he said, “I’m giving you 10 seconds to put down that paper or I am calling the police.”
He then leaned into my ear and breathing heavily and only counted up to number 2 before storming out of the room. None of the protesters flinched–at least not until the sheriff’s deputies arrived.
Before the event, I had contacted the local sheriff’s office to inform them of the protest and its nature. They were pleasant and appreciative of the forewarning and stated they would be nearby in case they were needed for safety. This courtesy appeared to bear fruit as Jorgensen did indeed contact the sheriff, who came and interrupted the event.
After being instructed to put down our papers, a member of our group asked what would happen if we did not comply. We were advised that we would then be asked to go outside. I inquired whether we would be arrested if we did not comply. We were reassured there would be no arrests. While one or two individuals agreed to exit the room, most chose not to comply. The deputy then stood at the back of the event and tolerated Jorgensen in his ear for the next 2 hours.
The presenters took their turns invading our personal space and acting as if we were afraid to respond. Attendees also took opportunities to disparage the protest, but none went so far as to physically assault any of us. We were photographed by the presenters and admonished for being disruptive if our newspapers made too much noise when we turned the page. It quickly became farcical.
Though we attempted to ignore the rhetoric, it was difficult to block it out. The presenters showed images of beheadings and other violence, even though there were children in the room. They also easily coerced individuals to read passages from text books and ask them to restate the reading in their own words. Worst of all, they were successful in getting their newly indoctrinated attendees to state in unison the reply to the statement, the group of people who all must be terrorists are…?”
This moment harkened back to my education as a child about Nazi Germany. It invoked the films of Nazi propaganda rallies against Eastern European Jews. My mind reeled with images of the old hand-bills the Nazis made with grossly exaggerated caricatures of Jewish people and universal blame for all of Germany’s pre-war troubles. It took less than 2 hours for them to brainwash the willing.
After three hours, the presenters relented, and the traumatized attendees and protesters alike were allowed to depart. It was so refreshing to be greeted by the Indivisible members outside the event. Their support and persistence helped drain the venom from the wounds the presenters attempted to inflict. As the attendees exited, my campaign offered everyone ice cream and the opportunity to speak about the protest. We tried to communicate that our action was about demonstrating how we must ignore this hate speech.
The civil rights movement has happened. The Jim Crow laws have been declared illegal. Racism, sexism, religious intolerance have all been debated 50 years ago and the results are final: these positions are unacceptable in a free and equal society. There is no need for further debate!
In the end, eighteen individuals from the campaign participated. The Indivisible group boasted another 30 protesters. A generous count of 50 people attended the event as actual participants. More than 2/3 were from Nebraska and Council Bluffs.
Two weeks after “Understanding the Threat” came to Oakland, Jorgensen resigned his position with the Republican Party under pressure from the community and his own executive committee.
The same tactic bore similar fruit when we repeated this protest in Sioux Center. There were eight protesters with newspapers and at least fifteen dissenters who attended to challenge the presenter, in a room of 40 people with 20 to 30 others in an overflow area. The media spread the word, and people were given another demonstration that it is OK to end the debate when the banished snake of racism and Islamophobia tries to raise its head in our communities.
The tactic with Pizza Ranch worked so well when it was repeated in Sioux Center that the event had its contract cancelled in less than 90 minutes. Pizza Ranch stated they did not want to be in the center or any controversy or the location of a protest. The event was moved to the public library, giving access to the protesters in a public facility.