Monday, February 8, 2010

The Letter: An American Town and the “Somali Invasion” (Hamzeh Mystique Films, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was a 2003 documentary called The Letter: An American Town and the “Somali Invasion,” and the American town it dealt with was Lewiston, Maine. Lewiston was merely a classic story about America’s de-industrialization and the closure of the textile mills that had led to the town’s founding in the first place and had been operating for over 100 years — from the 1850’s to the 1980’s — and the economic wrench their abrupt closure had on the people living there, most of whom were French-Canadian immigrants whose ancestors had crossed the border when the mill was in full operation and you could apply for a job one day and be reasonably sure of being told, “You start tomorrow.” Then, in the early 2000’s, hundreds of Somali refugees started settling there.

Just how they found the place is a bit of a mystery; the Somalis had originally been resettled from their home country to the Black districts in Atlanta, but they didn’t want to stay there because the omnipresent gangs and the drug trade they controlled made the Somalis feel as endangered as they’d been from the civil wars in their home country. There’s a hint in the film that it was the federal government’s idea to resettle them in Lewiston, and other reports suggest that a few Somalis searched out Lewiston on their own, moved there and then sent for their families and clansmen (like a lot of Africans, Somalis live in an extended clan structure and have a far more expansive definition of what constitutes a “family,” and therefore what constitutes a family obligation, than we do).

However it happened, it engendered a lot of community opposition among the people of a town that, like Maine itself, was overwhelmingly (97 percent) white — though they’d had an African-American mayor, Jerry Jenkins, who’d won community credibility by running a storefront program for ex-convicts and at-risk youth. The anti-Somali backlash was enough to get the liberal woman mayor who had succeeded Jenkins defeated at the polls and replaced by Laurier “Larry” Raymond, a sixty-something attorney who in 2002 wrote an open letter to the Somali community telling them they were no longer welcome in Lewiston and please stay away. The timing was right after 9/11, when anti-Muslim hysteria was fueling the anti-Somali reaction and giving people who didn’t want to ’fess up to their racism a more socially acceptable excuse to hate them — and the Somalis’ stay in Lewiston was complicated by the release of the movie Black Hawk Down, since one of the 18 U.S. servicemembers killed in that incident had been a native of the Lewiston area and a stretch of freeway leading into Lewiston had just been named in his honor.

Raymond claimed that the mail into City Hall was running 100-to-1 in favor of his anti-immigrant stand, but tensions heated up even beyond what the Mayor was expecting when a group of open white supremacists affiliated with something called the World Church of the Creator came to Lewiston in hopes that they could score points for their cause with white Lewistonians opposing the so-called “Somali invasion.” (It’s not clear from the film itself or the information about it on the Web whether the World Church is a “Christian Identity” organization — one of those which believes that the white “Aryan” race, not the Jews, are God’s chosen people — but they do describe themselves as “a religion based on the supremacy of the white race.”)

The film’s climax came at two rallies in the city, both held on January 11, 2003, a pro-Somali, pro-tolerance effort sponsored by an ad hoc group called “Many Into One” who managed to score Maine’s highest elected officials, governor John Baldacci (who comes off in the movie as rehabilitating the white race from association with the idiocies of Mayor Raymond and the World Church people) and Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as the two immediately previous mayors, and fill a huge school auditorium and still leave an overflow crowd outside (in Maine, in January! You can see the people bundled up in warm clothing and still shivering from the cold and with their mouths steaming as they breathe), while the World Church and its secular affiliate, the National Alliance, ran a rally inside a small room that they were unable to fill.

The Letter ends with the filmmaker, Ziad H. Hamzeh, interviewing Mayor Raymond and asking how he felt about the letter now and in particular how he felt about becoming a symbol for racists when a relative of his is in the process of adopting an African-American child — and Raymond is literally unable to speak; he’s shown crying on camera and blurting out a “no comment,” and then a title mentions that Raymond chose not to run for re-election when his term expired. Interestingly, items in the media since 2003,when the film was made, have mostly shown the integration of Somalis into Lewiston a smashing success — they’ve revitalized the business community and broadened Lewiston’s tax base (a fascinating refutation of the whites in the film who were shown spouting off the usual anti-immigrant prejudices — that they’re lazy, they don’t want to work hard, they don’t speak English, they aren’t working and they’re a drain on the tax base — which director Hamzeh quietly and painstakingly refutes; he cuts from one white Lewistonian saying that the Somalis don’t want to learn English to a Somali stating that he speaks five languages, of which English is one) — though a racist “aggregator” Web site called the Vanguard News Network reprinted a story from the Lewiston Sun-Journal last December about Somali gangs beating up white people and replaced the Sun-Journal’s headline (“Police investigate Somali attacks”) with the inflammatory “Somali niggers attacking whites in Maine.”

There are now about 4,000 Somalis in Lewiston (including some Bantu people, an ethnic minority from southern Africa that have been oppressed by the ruling tribes in virtually every African country they’ve tried to settle in, sort of like the Jews in Europe in the 19th century or the Kurds in the Middle East in the 20th) and there seems to be a more or less lasting truce between them and the white locals. The Letter is a quite powerful movie, making the expected points against prejudice and for tolerance but with a lot less breast-beating than most progressive political documentaries — and perhaps the most chilling person in it is David Stearns, the local spokesperson for the World Church (and, according to the Associated Press coverage at the time, the only Lewistonian who would publicly admit to being a member of the church) and the sort of person whose quiet, matter-of-fact tones only add to the chill from the content of his message. I literally laughed out loud in the auditorium when Stearns cited Bill O’Reilly as a role model and inspiration — by their fruits you shall know them, indeed! — and I was amazed and flabbergasted at the extent to which Stearns was able, with his calm demeanor, to make his outrageous, open racism sound almost like common sense. (Perhaps if more of the Right-wing talk radio hosts adopted this approach instead of the screaming style of Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, their medium would be an even more effective outlet of Right-wing propaganda than it already is.)

Though one wishes Hamzeh had continued to film and made a follow-up about just how well the Somalis have integrated into Lewiston (or not), The Letter is a powerful movie as it stands and a pretty good preview of what American politics are likely to look like in the next few years as rising unemployment continues to take its toll on what’s left of the American middle class and the bottom-feeders of Right-wing populism continue to have the bulliest of bully pulpits to get people to blame their economic troubles on those below them — especially immigrants of color — rather than on those above.