On May 6, residents of Canton, NY and the surrounding area met at the campus of St. Lawrence University and marched to a meeting at the St. Lawrence County legislature. Community members met to discuss the political future of county legislator Rita Curran, who had assumed office only months earlier. The cause of outcry was an image that Curran had shared on Facebook of the World Trade Center in flames on 9/11, with the following text:
Every time a Muslim stand up [sic] in Congress and tells us they are going to change the constitution, impeach our president, or vote for socialism, remember you swore you’d never forget. They swore they would destroy us from within.
The outcry against Curran was immediate, with many calling for her resignation.
St. Lawrence County is nearly entirely rural, home to about 100,000 residents despite being the geographically largest county in New York State. In its 15-member Board of Legislators and in the greater conservative political community, Curran found friendship and support. Local newspaper North Country Now reports that legislature chairman Joe Lightfoot accused those reacting to Curran’s hate of “crossing the line” and performing “a cheap political trick,” while Republican Party County Chairman Tom Jennison, in a stunning display of bad faith, called the accusation of anti-Muslim hate “preposterous.” When the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a public condemnation of Curran’s Facebook post, legislator Kevin Acres falsely accused the group of “funneling money to Hamas,” while Curran bizarrely referred to them as a “terrorist website.”
Anti-Muslim legislators and their political operatives denied that they were anti-Muslim, suggesting that they don’t regard casually and baselessly associating Muslims with terrorism as anti-Muslim. By way of comparison, the Ku Klux Klan denies that it is a racist organization.
At no point in their initial responses did Curran and her supporters acknowledge the epidemic of anti-Muslim hate and violence in the country, nor would such an acknowledgment later appear.
Local youth lead the way
The demonstration was organized by students at St. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts university located in Canton. Sahar Delawar, a senior at SLU, said she heard about Curran’s social media activity a couple of days after the fact, and knew there had to be a response. Within a day, she and her friends had the community behind them.
In correspondence, Aida Gueye, President of the Islamic Culture Club at SLU, remarked that the resignation of one legislator would not even make a dent in the problem of anti-Muslim hate if the problem was a widespread one in the area — which it certainly is. She invited all members of the community to take the occasion to learn the reality of Islam and to reach out to organizations run by Muslim students. She stressed that Islam is a religion of peace, and that it stands for virtuous, admirable things.
The anti-Muslim contingent of the county legislature had accused community response of being a partisan attack against the Republican Party. Some local Democrats are among those who have criticized Curran, but the response transcends political parties. Nicholas Filannino, one organizer of the demonstration, repudiated this and stressed that the demonstration had nothing to do with partisan politics: “This is about right and wrong. It’s about human rights.”
Curran takes to the media
Days before the demonstration, Curran appeared on a conservative talk radio show based in Watertown, NY to further defend her remarks. Host Jeff Graham denounced her detractors as “fascists” and called out student organizers at St. Lawrence by name. So far they have not reported any harassment as a result.
At no point did Graham or Curran discuss the meaning of the messages that Curran had posted on Facebook — messages that say Muslims bear collective responsibility for the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11/ Muslims, as a religious group, are working to “destroy us from within.” Instead, Curran claimed that she had Muslim friends, without explaining why she would befriend people she believes to be clandestine terrorists.
County leaders disdain the people
Some who commented at the county legislature agreed with Curran and her friends, and went even further, saying explicitly and at length what her comments had only suggested. Others among the anti-Muslim contingent, knowing that to say such things openly would discredit them in the eyes of the majority of people, tried to change the subject to unrelated matters like freedom of speech, patriotism, or honoring the victims of 9/11. Those who supported the Muslim community castigated Curran and her supporters, while Muslims in attendance asked Curran to learn from her mistakes and to try to earn the trust of the community. “Most people up here talking about Islam do not understand Islam,” remarked one speaker.
Muslims who attended the public comment, along those who attended in solidarity with them, deserve praise and admiration — particularly so because the majority of legislators were visibly hostile to them. County supervisor Joe Lightfoot shouted down one speaker, who concluded his remarks to thunderous applause. The legislature declined to ask Curran to resign, and declined to censure her. Two journalists present at the event were antagonized by Lightfoot afterwards.
Solidarity is the way forward
All of these events may seem like a tempest in a teapot. But rural areas in the United States account for about 60 million people and the vast majority of the land mass, and St. Lawrence County is not at all unique in the outlook that was put on display. Taken in its entirety, bigotry in rural areas is a common and deep-rooted phenomenon. Far-right groups find a support base in these areas. It is important that working people seek to counter that influence everywhere.
One ongoing subject of anti-Muslim hate, Ilhan Omar, recently said that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are two sides of the same coin. A radical Christian terrorist assaulted the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego County only days before the whole series of events unfolded; the shooter had previously attempted to burn down a mosque. Curran’s social media history was revealed to contain anti-immigrant sentiments as well as opposition to so-called “multiculturalism.” Where hate takes one shape, it likely takes many others.
The many-sidedness of bigotry, of which hatred toward Muslims is one facet, shows that solidarity between all segments of the working class is as important as it has ever been in answering hate. The broader the scope of solidarity between the different segments of the working class, the less vulnerable it becomes as a political, social, and economic force. When the majority are united, they can stop any enemy in their tracks. This is a lesson that lesson that socialists can and must provide in every context.