NEW YORK (Sep. 24)
The dire economic crisis affecting American farmers where an “atmosphere of despair and hopelessness” has set in, is providng fertile ground for rightwing extremist groups to gain recruits, according to the head of an lowa-based farmer’s organization.
“Farmers across the country and particularly in the Midwest are now facing a greater economic upheaval than any we have seen in more than a half a century,” Dixon Terry, chairman of the lowa Farm Unity Coalition, told reporters at American Jewish Committee headquarters here.
“Because of economic dislocation, the loss of farms, and the financial pressures that farmers and their families are under, there is an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, and in this atmosphere many farmers are blindly grabbing at anything that seems to provide an answer for them.”
RIPE FOR RIGHTWING MANIPULATION
Continuing Terry added: “They are thus ripe for the manipulations of rightwing groups which provide simplistic answers, conspiracy theories, and bogus legal practices that will supposedly solve the farmers’ very serious difficulties. The problem is that these farmers have little or no contact with other segments or with mainstream media, and so they are prey to these manipulations.”
Terry appeared with Christian and Jewish religious leaders, and representatives of civil rights and farm groups at a news conference last week. They denounced recent attempts by extremist groups to stir up anti-Semitism among despairing farmers, warning that these actions posed a danger to the farmers and to democracy, as well as to Christian-Jewish relations.
The participants at the news conference warned that while there has been some increase in recruits to these extreme groups, they have by and large not been welcomed by the rural, middle west community.
The extremist groups “have not been received with open arms by our communities, and we believe these beliefs and actions are repugnant to the vast majority of our farm and rural population,” said Thomas Kelly, director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
The extremist groups operating in the Midwest include the Posse Comitatus, the Populist Party, the Aryan Nations, the Order, the Convenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, and the National Agricultural Press Association, or NAPA, headed by 58-year-old Rick Elliott.
These groups have blamed Jews, among others, for the problems of farmers. In lowa alone, it is estimated that 30 percent of the state’s 113,000 farmers will lose their land within the next 12 to 18 months, while another 30 percent will barely survive, according to an AJCommittee memorandum.
THOUSANDS OF HARDCORE ACTIVISTS AND SYMPATHIZERS
Rabbi James Rudin, director of Interreligious Affairs for the AJCommittee, recently engaged in a 10-day fact finding tour of the Midwest, meeting with farmers, public officials, law enforcement officials, Christian clergy leaders, and others. “All agree,” he reported, “that the radical right is making significant gains among some of the economically threatened farmers.”
It is difficult to determine the exact number of members in the extremist organizations, due to the secrecy of the groups. But Leonard Zeskind, research director of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, estimated that the far right groups have between 2,000 and 5,000 “hardcore activists” and between 14,000 and 50,000 sympathizers in the Middle West.
“Over the last five years the level of organizing activity by racists and anti-Semites has steadily increased,” Zeskind told the news conference.” They have taken advantage of the crisis in rural America and used the crisis to put forward their own political agenda. They have used both the more flamboyant tactics of paramilitary training and hate mongering as well as the established political tactics of base building.”
The stockpiling of weapons, food, ammunitions, and explosives is also part of the activities of extremist groups, and according to Kelly, some leaders of extremist organizations “urge their members to take violent action against Jews and racial minorities.”
But Kelly cautioned that persons recently responsible for various terrorist activities in Kansas are not farmers themselves, “and we believe that members of our farm population are discerning individuals who reject extremist view points for what they are.”
STEPS TO COMBAT RACIST GROUPS
All participants at the news conference urged a concerted effort by the government to stem the growing financial plight facing the farmers. There was also a call from a Christian cleric for education programs to combat the efforts of extremist groups.
Bishop Maurice Dingman, head of the Catholic Diocese of De Moines, stressed the need for a “strong educational program to dispel the notion of the so-called ‘Jewish conspiracy of bankers’ allegedly trying to take farms away from family farmers.”
“We must unmask groups — like the one that calls itself the Christian Identity — that makes a mockery of Christianity by calling themselves Christian while spreading a patently un-Christian message,” Dingman declared. “These groups engender only hate.”
Rev. Donald Manworren, executive coordinator of the lowa Interchurch Forum, warned that the far right movement “must be taken in all seriousness.” Noting the situation of American farmers and its effect on rural America, Manworren said, “The sense of helplessness, rage and despair created by these changes makes people vulnerable to explanations that seem to fix blame and promise hope.”