In light of the May Day arrests of the Cuyahoga 5, the Occupy Wall Street–affiliated group of men who planned to blow up a bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, I called the Southern Poverty Law Center to find out of they had any plans to start tracking the Occupy movement. The first person I spoke to was so shocked by the question that she paused for a good 15 seconds before promising to put me in touch with a representative. This she eventually did, however, and after a game of cat-and-mouse — the person she’d found for me was busy “hosting an international conference on right-wing extremism,” natch — we managed to touch base and I to pose the question: “Do you have any plans to start tracking Occupy Wall Street after a hate group tried to blow up a bridge?”
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “We blogged it right away when it happened.” I asked him why he thought this deserved only a blog post, and he explained that the SPLC only deals with “hatred of people based on class characteristics,” which a little more pushing revealed meant “immutable characteristics such as a person’s eye or skin color.” “So,” I asked, “Occupy doesn’t count because it doesn’t hate people based on their innate characteristics?” He assented, but didn’t explain adequately why SPLC is vocal on “Islamophobia,” for example — whatever Islam is, it is not an “immutable” characteristic — and why it concerns itself with matters of traditionalist Catholic theology.
“We did go after the eco-terrorists,” he told me. “But that was because they’d adopted the same tactics as the abortion activists: vilification, the use of ‘Wanted’ posters, highlighting the names and whereabouts of people’s children and spouses.” And then he went on a long speech about “anti-abortion extremists” that had very little to do with what I was asking, but no doubt made him feel good. I met this with silence, so he said that, really, the SPLC only tracks those who commit violence or who seek to destroy whole systems in the name of an ideology.
“Isn’t that exactly what happened in Cleveland?” I asked. “These five men, all linked with Occupy Wall Street, attempted to blow up a bridge as an overture to the wholesale destruction of Cleveland, Ohio, and in the name of anarchism. They also looked to blow up the Republican convention.”
“They were anarchists,” he repeated.
He paused. “We’re not really set up to cover the extreme Left.”
This was at least honest. He must have heard me thinking, because he continued, “Some people ask why we don’t cover prison gangs or the Crips and the Bloods, because they are violent, too. But they aren’t political, you see.”
“But Occupy is political,” I suggested.
Back to the honesty: “Well, take it if you will, or won’t.”
He felt the need to keep explaining, so I let him. We only ever cover left-wing groups when they have a right-wing component, he told me. For example, “when anarchist groups are infiltrated by those on the right; Neo-Nazis, that sort of thing.”
I asked whether this was a little like the way the French do masculine and feminine plurals; that if there are a thousand women and one man, it becomes masculine. In other words, that the SPLC covers a group if there is even a minute “right-wing” component. “Yes, I suppose so,” he said.
I left it there, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was a little bit of a syllogism going on; that being that “Left” equals “good,” and “Right” equals “bad,” and therefore anything “Left” couldn’t be “bad” unless it were infiltrated by the “Right.” In my time covering Occupy Wall Street I have seen anti-Semitism, black nationalism, class hatred, and threats of violence; there have been rapes, a few murders, and now some domestic terrorism. One would have thought that these things would be sufficient warrant for a group like the Southern Poverty Law Center to stand up and take serious note, but, as I learned yesterday, there’s one problem: They’re just “not set up to cover the extreme Left.”