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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008

Inciting the Mobs

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When does a negative political campaign cross the line into inciting a mob? Are politicians playing with fire when campaign rallies start turning into hate rallies?

Those questions were being asked across the country last week after a series of incidents at John McCain and Sarah Palin rallies at which the vitriol against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama grew so ugly that crowd members began yelling “Kill him!” and “Terrorist!”

One of the prime exhibits was an angry McCain-Palin rally in Waukesha last Thursday at which a right-wing, African-American talk-show host stood up and begged, actually begged, McCain to smear Obama with more negative attacks.

Other members of the angry crowd shouted down McCain himself at times, expressing outrage that McCain appeared to be losing to Obama and about “the socialists taking over our country!”

Racial epithets frequently are heard in these crowds. At the same Palin rally in Clearwater, Fla., where a crowd member yelled “Kill him!” after Palin attacked Obama, others turned on the media and began yelling racial insults at an African- American sound engineer for a network camera crew.

Even when crowds aren’t yelling the N-word, race may very well be at the root of much of the anger. Crowd members say they are absolutely shocked that McCain could be running behind Obama. Unspoken is why that should be so shocking to conservative, white Republicans. But McCain is not the first to be surprised by the widespread support for Obama. So was Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The irony was thick in Waukesha when the overwhelmingly white, conservative crowd cheered James T. Harris, a right-wing, African-American talk-show host who works for WTMJ radio.

WTMJ, owned by Journal Communications, was once a highly respected news station in Milwaukee, but none too popular in conservative Waukesha.

Waukesha has never been particularly fond of African Americans, either. Waukesha residents oppose a commuter rail system that would allow them to avoid freeway congestion and ride to and from Milwaukee in comfort because they are afraid blacks from the city would use it to come their direction.

But Waukesha sure liked a right-wing black from WTMJ who showed up to beg McCain to attack Obama more viciously. The professional standards of WTMJ obviously have changed, too.

All that angry rhetoric in Waukesha about socialists taking over the country was particularly amusing. The only people they could possibly be talking about were Republican President George W. Bush and his treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, the largest investment bank on Wall Street.

They were the ones who came up with a $700 billion Wall Street bailout to allow the government to partially nationalize banks and buy up the bad debts of private financial institutions.

Sowing the Seeds of Hatred

The day after the Waukesha rally, McCain himself appeared to be growing fearful of the hateful mobs he and Palin have unleashed.

McCain tried to calm a crowd in Lakeville, Minn., by saying that he intended to run a respectful campaign. “I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments,” he said.

An extraordinary thing happened. The crowd booed their own candidate.

He tried again when a woman said she didn’t trust Obama because she’d read he was an Arab. “No, ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man … I have to tell you he is a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

Once again, some of McCain’s own supporters booed him for suggesting his fellow candidate for president was a decent human being.

By the end of the week, it took Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran of the civil rights violence of the ’60s, to put the Republican hate rallies in context, accusing McCain and Palin of “sowing the seeds of hatred.”

Segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and other white Southern politicians were responsible for the climate of violence and hatred in those days, said Lewis, who was beaten on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala. “George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans,” Lewis said.

McCain appears to be belatedly attempting to cool some of the calls for violence against Obama that he and his running mate have stirred up. Inflaming ugly mobs is politically stupid at a time when voters are looking for serious answers to the biggest economic crisis this country has faced in their lifetimes.

With this country’s history of racial violence and assassination, it’s also irresponsible and downright dangerous.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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