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Eugene Weekly : Commentary : 1.14.10

 

Escalation

Pacifica Forum gets the attention it craves

by Joseph A. Lieberman

Rage, jeers, insults, defiant shouts and tears marked a Jan. 8 Pacifica Forum (PF) meeting at the UO that had been benignly billed as “Everything You Wanted to Know about Pacifica Forum but were Afraid to Ask.” Once again, campus police were in attendance, but so were roughly three dozen very verbal protestors, most of them students who made it quite clear PF had overstayed its welcome on campus.

Many carried signs equating Pacifica Forum with Nazism, a conclusion reached as a result of PF hosting a Dec. 11 presentation by National Socialist Movement speaker Jimmy Marr, who, with a half dozen followers, offended many present with “Sieg Heil!” salutes, a neo-Nazi video, and slides of an NSM demonstration that turned violent (see report in the Dec. 17 EW).

Protesters line the back wall at the Jan. 8 meeting. photo by Sarita Lief.

Student Katie Hulse confronts Orval Etter (in wheelchair), Billy Rojas and Valdas Anelauskas Jan. 8. photo by Sarita Lief.

Billy Rojas, who spoke out so strongly against the NSM’s “Sieg Heils” at that meeting and who will debate Marr at 3 pm Friday, Jan. 15 in the EMU Walnut Room on campus, repeatedly told the audience that PF is “Eugene’s only free speech group, founded to promote peace, and not a fascist organization. Not one of our members, other than Jimmy himself, joined in that salute, and I protested it.”

Clearly, the majority weren’t convinced. Rojas’ words were met with derision and catcalls, which continued for most of the meeting. As moderator-by-default in a supposedly “leaderless” club, Rojas several times called for order and asked demonstrators to allow speakers to reply. Rojas has referred to the loosely knit group as “adhoctivists,” which in a sense grants them the shared luxury of diminished responsibility.

If this were a university-sanctioned activity (which broadcasts on Community Television of Lane County make it appear to be), more respectful and disciplined behavior might be demanded by academic authorities. That, in fact, is precisely the dilemma the UO  faces in allowing an unsanctioned event that carries a potential for chaos to take place on campus grounds. If that sounds exaggerated or unduly alarmist, consider that, according to the Anti-Hate Task Force (AHTF) report, the UO assigned as many as 11 campus officers to this event. In future, that number can only grow as protests become more robust.

The rowdy jeering last Friday notched up when PF member Valdas Anelauskas, a Lithuanian immigrant and “dissident by calling,” defended his outspokenly anti-Semitic views. Anelauskas’ claim that Marr’s Nazi salutes “were basically a joke” encouraged further ridicule, but he pressed on to spell out that it was his own idea, not Marr’s, to initiate the NSM talk. Anelauskas, whose father was imprisoned for 10 years in a Soviet gulag, explained how “I saw Trotskyite communists freely distributing their propaganda on the UO campus, which my daughter attends, so I asked Jimmy to help me counter that with a viewpoint from the far right.”

Understood. But the undisciplined structure of PF allows it to leap between extremism and irrelevance with unsettling ease. A case in point is this Friday’s (Jan. 15) “debate” between Rojas in his role as founder of the Swastika Club of America (SCA), and Marr. Because the one requirement of the SCA is opposition to Nazism, Rojas wanted the debate to include challenges to Marr’s support of NSM and its neo-Nazi principles. Marr rejected that condition, saying he would only debate about swastikas specifically. Unless Marr reconsiders answering direct criticisms of his white-supremacist beliefs, the resultant discussion may be about as challenging (and tedious) as two linguists arguing over the use of semicolons.

In relation to another adversary, Rojas had circulated a letter prior to the Jan. 8 event threatening AHTF member Michael Williams with a lawsuit for his “defamatory” and “false and legally libelous” criticism of PF in a letter published in EW Dec. 31, referencing Williams’ “unfounded claim that PF is anti-Latino and racially biased.” 

On the afternoon of Jan. 8, Williams challenged Rojas on this matter, demanding to know how Rojas could claim PF is a bastion of free speech and then “threaten me with a lawsuit for exercising my freedom of speech.” Rojas replied that libel lies outside the bounds of free speech. 

Williams and several other opponents to PF reiterated published opinions that “this so-called free speech group” is a haven for “fascists, Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and bigots,” while various PF members took turns replying in a somewhat haphazard way amid the general uproar.

Regarding these frequent interruptions by demonstrators, Rojas later commented, “Some of our protestors ... helped make the evening memorable by providing something like comic relief. That is, their occasional chants … were virtually scripted by central casting. Utterly predictable, and … regurgitated almost verbatim from incitements printed in the local press.”

At one point, Rabbi Yitzchak Husbands-Hankin of Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel stepped forward to directly question Orval Etter, the 94-year-old founder and chairman of Pacifica Forum. It’s Etter’s status as a UO professor emeritus that gives PF access to the campus, but at meetings he habitually sits silently in his wheelchair, a tenuous presence at best, sometimes dozing off as he did at Marr’s presentation in December.

The rabbi mentioned he had left phone messages and emails with Etter, his former professor, who had not deigned to reply. For that reason, Husbands-Hankin, who is widely respected as a peacemaker in the community, had come to ask in person: “Please tell me, is there a line in your mind, is there any point at which free speech can become hate speech? And if so, would you be willing to apologize to the community for what happened here in December?”

Etter just stared ahead, smiling, acknowledging nothing. A commentary published earlier in the Oregon Daily Emerald noted how Etter had once remarked that a policy of neither confirming nor refuting accusations against PF “gets us attention” and adds a “livelier spirit” to meetings. Perhaps Etter’s non-response to the rabbi was an extension of that policy, perhaps he was not altogether “there,” or perhaps he was just being rude. In any case, Husbands-Hankin reworded his question and gently but firmly asked it again, several times, while in the background protestors shouted more anti-fascist remarks.

Obviously impatient with this exchange, Jimmy Marr, seated in the audience, compounded his December outrage by thrusting his right arm high in the air and barking several “Sieg Heil” salutes to the rabbi’s face. The protestors roared, and Marr sent them one further “Sieg Heil,” followed by, “Get used to it!”

As the tumult ensued, Rojas replied to the rabbi, in place of Etter, that he does believe “Some speech crosses lines it should not cross,” which drew applause. Arguably, however, this was not PF’s finest hour. At their best, Marr, Anelauskas and others offer viewpoints in a reasoned manner, aware that their discourse may be abhorrent to many listeners, but willing to accept questions and reply to differences in opinion that frequently are diametrically opposed to their own.

Like unruly children playing with fire, however, they seem almost insensible to the fact that language in itself has the power to cause harm, and that extreme positions carry emotional weight that may incite impassioned responses. Either they are insentient to the painful reactions they provoke, or they do so knowingly and willingly for the sheer pleasure of the attention this brings into otherwise monochrome lives.

The problem comes when attention becomes a narcotic that dulls reason in search of an ever stronger fix. PF may have had the best of intentions when it originated and for many years after, but like a TV show desperate for higher ratings, its declining membership and increasing irrelevance to the community has inspired increasingly reckless choices of subject matter and disregard for presenters’ behavior. When it occurred, many considered Marr’s arrogant display of disrespect toward Rabbi Husbands-Hankin to be the low point of the evening, but there was more to come.

 A number of student demonstrators were from an ad hoc coalition calling themselves the Black Tea Society (after an anti-authoritarian group that formed in Boston to protest the 2004 Democratic National Convention). Political science major Cimmeron Gillespie tried explaining to PF members how emotionally and psychologically damaging Marr’s December presentation had been to a number of his campus acquaintances.

The PF response was to scoff at his assessment, reinforcing the notion that they are in denial about people feeling harmed by their presentations. Yet minutes earlier, this very point had been illustrated before the entire audience when student Katie Hulse took exception to a remark Anelauskas had made in reference to a PF lecture he’d given on Aug. 28, 2009.

According to his own explanation, Anelauskas had found some humor in a quotation from the late radical feminist Andrea Dworkin to the effect that she wanted to be ”too ugly to rape.” This day, Anelauskas extended that insult by applying the same phrase to EW columnist Sally Sheklow. No one else considered the remark to be in any sense humorous. 

The Register-Guard focused on this episode in their front page story on Jan. 9, but according to Rojas, who referred to it as the “highlight of the evening,” the R-G distorted this incident “almost beyond recognition.”

In a private meeting after the forum, several PF members reviewed this con-frontation and concluded, in a statement sent out by Rojas, that “a student feminist found her cue for some theatrical drama. She came up to the speaker’s table along with some feminist friends, and, after a little speech about how she felt ‘threatened,’ she started to cry. (We weren’t) sure if we were supposed to laugh at this episode, but it was so obviously staged that only the politically correct-committed could have failed to understand it for what it was: theater --— and more like Theater of the Absurd.”

This view was not shared by most others. Soon after, ASUO President Emma Callaway, speaking for the thousands of students she represents, demanded that PF “get out and leave the campus and never come back,” or at the very least meet someplace other than the EMU where students of every persuasion are supposed to feel safe and welcome. Anelauskas agreed PF would be happy to move back to another campus building that they’d previously lost the use of.

Whether PF members were aware of it or not, in a single afternoon they managed to offend feminists, Jews, Muslims, gays, lesbians, people of color, and just about anyone who believes that our fellow human beings deserve to be judged on their actions rather than on their ethnicity, religion or lifestyle choices. 

Several commentors to EW have rightly pointed out that no one has yet successfully defined “hate speech” in a legal sense. However, as Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart said when asked to define hardcore pornography, “I know it when I see it.” In that sense, the popular verdict is that PF has crossed that line one too many times.

The ongoing controversies surrounding PF’s presence and agenda at the UO are only going to snowball. As lawsuits are threatened, protest movements formed, lines drawn and angry letters written, look for involvement within the next two weeks from Mayor Kitty Piercy, UO President Richard Lariviere and Raquel Wells of the Eugene Human Rights Commission.

Pacifica Forum has now become anything but pacific. It seems that the biggest winner on Jan. 8 — perhaps the only winner — was Orval Etter, who sat motionless as conflict and enmity raged around him, calm and impassive amid the sea of discord that had been sown under his watch. His stated mission had been getting increased attention under the guise of “free speech.” Mission accomplished. 

Joseph A. Lieberman is a Eugene freelance writer and author of School Shootings — What Every Parent and Educator Needs to Know to Protect Our Children.