Jim Crow never went away, it evolved. Adapting to the times and changing expectations of our culture, Jim Crow has become James Crow, esquire.The Klan traded in their white sheets for LLCs and their brickbats for PACs. The Citizens Councils and John Birchers and Governor Wallace supporters all found renewed vigor with the election of the country’s first black President. Grabbing their Gadsden flags and donning their triangular hats, they congregated at well-financed, politically orchestrated gatherings and called themselves the “TEA Party.” While the outward appearance and the methods of the Old Southern Guard have changed, their goals remain the same: control. They seek to control the bodies of women, to control the lives of people of color, to control the relationships of queer folks, to control the use of violence and fear in our society to their benefit.
The best current example of this is the Chattanooga TEA Party (CTP). For the past year, the CTP leadership (Mark West, Larry Grohn, Charlie Wysong, April Eidson, to name a few) have been rallying conservatives around an extremist right-wing agenda, such as fighting against equality for Chattanooga’s LGBT city workers and recalling Chattanooga’s first openly gay Council Representative. Recently, they launched a new initiative to "protect Tennessee’s borders," a brazenly racist objective that utilizes vigilante rhetoric and publicly calls for political action to be taken against the unprecedented influx of thousands of children across the U.S. border over the past few months in the hopes of escaping extreme poverty and violence in their home countries.
The right-wing extremism of the CTP should be of deep concern to everyone in the greater Chattanooga region, especially given the fact that their agenda appears to be achieving some electoral victories as a result, at least in part, of their recently formed Political Action Committee: ”Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency” (CGAT).
The CGAT has provided Mark West, Charlie Wysong, and other leaders in the Chattanooga TEA Party with the legal opportunity to funnel thousands of dollars from a small number of wealthy conservatives into local political races and issue-based politics, further unbalancing and distorting our pay-to-play political system to the advantage of their right-wing agenda. As a result, a small number of bigots have been capable of launching a serious attack on a city law that would provide equality for Chattanooga’s LGBT city workers and their families. You can read the disclosed donors and expenses of the CGAT at the Tennessee government’s website for online campaign finance by searching for CITIZENS or by clicking HERE.
Here are just a few of the notable right-wing extremists who have donated large sums of money to the Chattanooga TEA Party’s PAC:
Andy Miller, who is raking in a fortune as the owner of a healthcare venture capital and private equity firm, donated $10,000 to CGAT in 2013. Previously, Miller dropped $260,000 into two Tennessee Super PACs to support the candidacy of Lou Ann Zelenik, a notorious anti-Muslim bigot whose opposition to the construction of an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was the centerpiece of her campaign. Not one to hide her crazy, Zelenik publicly claimed that “Islam does not claim to be a religion, but a social and political system that intends to dominate every facet of our lives and seeks to dominate it’s host culture by any means including force and violence.”
According to The Tennessean, Andy Miller also serves “on the board of the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, whose top issues include opposing the spread of Islamic Shariah law. Zelenik is the group’s former executive director.” The Tennessee Freedom Coalition is a hate-based organization committed to the persecution of Muslims in Tennessee. In fact, according to OpenSecrets.org “in April 2011 the organization hosted Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders as a speaker; Wilders is known across Europe for his anti-immigration and anti-Islamic politics. He has called for the banning of the Quran and called Islam a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion. In 2011, Wilders was acquitted in the Netherlands of inciting hatred against Muslims.” At the Tennessee Freedom Coalition’s recent statewide conference, in which Andy Miller was one of the key-note speakers, Geert Wilders gave a hate speech in which he spewed the following:
we must repeat it over and over again, especially to our children, our Western values and culture based on Christianity and Judaism is better and superior to the Islamic culture (applause), and leaders who talk about immigration without mentioning Islam are blind (applause)”…”we must stop the immigration from non-Western countries and we must forbid the construction of new hate palaces called mosques (applause)”…”the press calls it an Arab spring, I call it unfortunately an Arab winter (applause), Islam and freedom, Islam and democracy are incompatible (applause)”…”the so called Prophet Muhammad was a terrorist worse than Bin Laden ever was (applause)”…”neutrality my friends, neutrality in the face of evil is evil itself (applause).”
Dennis Bizzoco, a prominent anti-choice activist who was instrumental in the closing of Chattanooga’s sole abortion clinic in 1993, has donated $1,500 to CGAT. At the time of the clinic’s closing, pictures show a smiling Bizzoco driving a a bulldozer into the building at an anti-choice celebration following the purchase by wealthy conservatives.
Sam Casey, a prominent anti-choice attorney whose work focuses extensively on ending human embryo research, has donated $5,000 to CGAT. Casey’s law firm publicly admits to advocating for laws that would restrict a woman’s access to abortion to only those cases involving a serious health risk to the mother or in the case of pregnancy as a result of rape and/or incest - with the caveat that these exceptions are “only where politically necessary as an incremental step” toward the total outlawing of reproductive choice.
These behind-the-scenes financial contributions are part of the broader context in which normally marginalized viewpoints, like that of the deeply bigoted Chattanooga TEA Party leader Charles Wysong, become politically substantive - because elected officials know that campaign money stands behind their venomous words. Wysong infamously referred to the recent city’s domestic partners ordinance, which extended health care to all city workers and their families regardless of sexual orientation, as "evil" and "wicked" and told the press that he and the other CTP members “are serving notice that Chattanooga will not be … giving normal status to sodomy.” Wysong was instrumental in obtaining the signatures needed to have Chattanooga’s Non-Discrimination and Domestic Partnership Ordinance placed on a ballot for referendum and has been a public voice in the recall of City Council Representative Chris Anderson.
Just as terrifying as the proliferation of hate-based right-wing extremism, is the depth of support it has in our local government. Just take a look at the following political candidates who have all either received support from CGAT or who have donated to it:
- Chester Bankston, Hamilton County Commissioner
- Bill Bennett, Hamilton County Assessor of Property
- Larry Henry, Hamilton County Commissioner
- William “Bill” Hullander, Hamilton County Trustee
- Robert Philyaw, Juvenile Court Judge
- Larry Grohn, Chattanooga City Council Representative
- Deborah Scott, former City Council Representative
- Roger Tudor, candidate for Chattanooga City Council and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee
CGAT’s website states that the PAC “was instrumental in assisting in the 2013 election of several local candidates including Ken Smith, Larry Grohn, and Chip Henderson." Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency are listed as having contributed $1,500 to the campaign of City Council Rep. Larry Grohn in his financial disclosures. Yet, the campaign finance disclosures of both City Council Rep. Ken Smith and City Council Rep. Chip Henderson show no such donations, either direct or in-kind, from CGAT on their official documents.
In addition to turning out the vote against providing equal benefits to LGBT families that work for city government, the Chattanooga TEA Party/CGAT have endorsed an entire slate of candidates:
The right-wing hate machine is on the rise and has effectively consolidated its power in the local county government and is gaining traction in the city government. That is clear. The question is: how will those of us on the left effectively fightback against their agenda to set the clock back on reproductive rights, racial justice, and justice for the LGBT community? How will we take our power back? I don’t have a long-term solution to this question, but I do have an immediate reply: VOTE.
In what has to be one of the greatest internet examples of the local right-wing’s theater of the absurd, Mark West, president of the Chattanooga TEA Party and lead spokesperson for the CGAT, has written a blog post in which he refers to human rights activists as “radical homosexual fascists.” Never mind the fact that Nazi fascists rounded up homosexuals and forced them into concentration camps for mass extermination, all justified using dehumanizing language scarcely distinguishable from that used by many members of the Chattanooga TEA Party. West exhibits the same cognitive dissonance in his claim that human rights activists “do not believe in the America our founding fathers fought and died for, one that recognizes and respects freedom of religion, speech and thought.” West, like most bullies and bigots, screams in defense of the continued persecution of queer folks and then cries that his free speech rights are somehow being violated when he is publicly called out or shamed - or when other private organizations, like banks or television networks, rightfully decide they will not legitimize those beliefs by providing them with finances or air-time. Like most TEA Party politics, his assumptions rest on the failure to understand basic facts - like the fact that the First Amendment limits the government from censoring viewpoints and has nothing to do with one private citizen (like myself) acting on their right to free speech by calling out another citizen (like Mark West) for being an ignorant bigot.