Dissent is once again a criminal act in America. People who object to right-wing lunacy used to be called “communists” and treated as enemies of the state. Now “anarchist” is the label of choice used to harass those who disagree.
Just ask my 81-year-old mom. In the state of North Carolina, she is a suspected anarchist for wanting children to go to decent schools.
A new era of protest
America has gone through plenty of protests that have made us stronger and better, from the Revolutionary era and the abolitionists to the sit-down strikes and the lunch-counter civil rights demonstrations.
Now we’ve entered a new distinctive era of protest — the pushback against economic inequality, stagnant wages, attacks on public programs, and two-tiered justice that’s popped up in Wisconsin, the Occupy Movement, and, most recently, North Carolina’s Moral Mondays, a progressive charge against a wave of knuckle-dragging GOP legislation that seeks to turn the state into a Mid-Atlantic Mississippi.
Protests inevitably fire the energy of those who are allergic to change. Many Americans are old enough to recall the Second Red Scare, which blew across the country like poison gas in the 1950s and had everybody from Martin Luther King to Burl Ives branded a communist. Hundreds were locked behind bars and thousands lost their jobs. Blacklists spread not only through Hollywood, but also through schools and universities. If you were a union activist, you were labeled a communist. Gay? Definitely a communist. Feminist? Ditto. Arthur Miller compared the hysteria to the Salem witch trials in his play, The Crucible.
Now when those in power want to question someone’s patriotism or values, the term “anarchist” comes in handy. The fear of anarchists in the U.S. goes way back to 1870s, when businessmen, religious leaders and editorial writers tried to stoke opposition to dissident railroad workers and again to laborers fighting for an 8-hour-day during the Haymarket affair in the mid-1880s. The same dirty, reckless tactics are deployed now as they were then: Fear-mongering, bending the law, and the red-baiter’s favorite tactic of all, spying.
When everyone’s a suspect, no one is safe from accusations. Not the student, not the pastor, not the teacher.
Meet the new face of anarchy
My 81-year-old mother, Barbara Parramore, is a former Sunday school teacher who served in North Carolina’s public education system for half a century as a teacher, elementary school principal, and professor of education at N.C. State University. She is the author of many books for young learners, like the Children's Dictionary of Occupations (a subversive tract if there ever was one).
Since her retirement, Mom has been engaged in such radical activities as raising money for a 4-H museum, volunteering with the Carolina Ballet, and sharing her modest savings with her alma mater to set up a scholarship.
According to North Carolina police, she is a suspected anarchist. For real.
Let me explain. A citizen who cares about her community, Mom follows the news closely. Lately she’s been shaken to see rabid right-wingers doing their level best to handicap the next generation of Tarheels. They have declared a war on the poor, women, young people, African Americans, and anybody else who does not share their mean-spirited objectives.
Some might mistake Mom for a southern belle, with her charming manners and conservative attire. But she is actually a steel magnolia. When Mom saw her life’s work as an educator jeopardized, she joined her Baptist pastor and other concerned North Carolinians to protest at the State Capitol as part of the Moral Monday campaign. On an afternoon in May, she joined hundreds of other peaceful citizens at the Legislative Building in Raleigh to call attention to the constant attacks on the most vulnerable. Later that evening, she was handcuffed and taken to jail. She expressed her reasons for risking arrest in an essay published on AlterNet and elsewhere:
“I was born in 1932 and am a child of the Great Depression and World War II. My oldest brother went into the army in January 1942 and I knew many older brothers of my friends who did not survive. Part of my DNA is being concerned about family and neighbors and helping each other whenever we could….Back then, neighbors and citizens knew how to care about each other, which brings me to my concern about what is happening right now to families and communities around the state. The list of bills proposed by one or both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly in spring of 2013 is long. Too many of these proposals appear to be poorly thought out. As a citizen who has never missed the opportunity to vote in local, state and national elections, I now have the feeling that my voice is not being considered. Participating in a protest is my way of letting members of the General Assembly know that there are other voices that they need to hear.”
Mom described herself as “most concerned about the bills affecting the public schools and opportunities of post-secondary education.”
In the feverish imagination of North Carolina police, Mom could be a terrorist fomenting violent revolution. (It’s true that she shot a squirrel in her yard with a pellet gun, but that was an isolated incident).
As the Charlotte Observer reported, when the first trial of the hundreds of North Carolinians arrested during the peaceful Moral Monday demonstrations commenced, the chief of the General Assembly police admitted that protesters were spied upon, “and that his department ‘collected intelligence’ on the ‘anarchists’ among them.’”
When Mom learned that the police were sent to the church meeting where she and others had gathered before the protest, she was bewildered: “If we had known they were there, we would have been glad to talk to them, welcome them in.” I am quite certain that Mom would have gotten them a snack.
But the police went to church undercover, presumably collecting tidbits about the praying, singing and other signs of subversive activity.
It appears that “anarchist” became the preferred term of denigration in North Carolina because plain old “outsider” slander wouldn’t stick. When Governor Pat McCrory tried to pretend that the Moral Monday protesters were outside agitators, the facts quickly proved him wrong. What’s a scaremongerer to do? The communist label had gotten kind of tired since the Cold War ended (the same types of folks used to call my late father, a history professor, a communist because he advocated desegregation).
But “anarchist” has a nice ring to it. Most ordinary people have little idea of what it means, vaguely associating the term with revolution and chaos, even though the more accurate face of anarchy would be that of someone like Professor David Graeber, the American anthropologist associated with the peaceful Occupy protests who likes to talk about cooperation and mutual respect among citizens.
Never mind reality. Anarchist is now the term for any person with the temerity to suggest that the poor deserve compassion, that all children deserve decent schools, and that a widening gulf between haves and have-nots is not good for the country.
Mom would probably be comfortable with the label “Democrat” or “Christian” or even “uppity female.” But I doubt that the term “anarchist” ever crossed her mind.
Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' She received her Ph.d in English and Cultural Theory from NYU, where she has taught essay writing and semiotics. She is the Director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.