It’s been quite a year fighting Islamophobia and anti immigrant/refugee bigotry in South Dakota. It all started this past January 2017, when I was alerted that there had been an anti-refugee bill introduced at our state capital, Pierre, SD. I dusted off my advocacy hat and started reaching out to my network of immigration lawyers, social justice activists, and interfaith leaders. I even took a chance and emailed the CEO of Lutheran Social Services, Betty Oldenkamp, telling her that LSS was not alone. And we were off to the races. Shortly after this bill was introduced, two Islamophobic and anti-refugee resolutions were introduced.
And a beautiful thing happened and continues to happen. People from all walks of life came together. I had a US Marine, Arabic Linguist born and raised in Rapid City email me to say that she was disgusted on what legislators were saying and doing, and that this was not the SD she grew up in. She expressed her interest in providing testimony on her experience working with Arabic speaking people, and what she believed SD was. She testified in Pierre twice.
People who didn’t even know where Pierre was, wanted to drive there and testify on how important refugee resettlement is to South Dakota and how integral immigrants, refugees, and Muslims have been and will continue to be for the success of SD. And we took off from work, drove there and we testified – a group led by immigrants, refugees, Muslims and supported by our allies.Fun fact: Did you know that Sioux Falls Census of 1900 recorded “50 Mohammedans” (Muslims)?
I learned so much about the legislative process in those chaotic three months. I learned that having sound relationships with legislators is key to dialogue and mutual understanding. I learned that lobbyists are the hardest working people I’ve met, advocating for their issues and the best interest of South Daktoans. I also learned that there is a continuum of legislators – that not all Republicans are “bad” or don’t care about immigrants, refugees and Muslim constituents. That the overwhelming majority of legislators care about the everyday South Dakotan and want to understand what is true and best for us. And that many legislators have never met a Muslim, immigrant or refugee and most were excited to meet us in Pierre and understand how deeply we care about these issues.
And I sadly learned that there are legislators who believe a continuum of falsities when it comes to immigrants/refugees and Muslim South Dakotans. There are those who misunderstand us, fear us, and there are those who hate us. And we sat through grueling, vitriolic testimony from those who supported those bigoted resolutions saying things like, over 90% of Somali Muslim men in Sweden rape Swedish woman and that if SD doesn’t shut its doors, it would happen here too! I cringed and watched as a high school student group sat through this testimony. And I sat in the Senate chambers with a group of 15 Muslims, immigrants and refugees: A US Marine, an engineer, small business owners, moms and housewives, and right before gaveling in was told that our group would not be introduced, as is customary, so as not to inflame legislators.
And a beautiful thing happened. We – our intersectional coalition – defeated both of those horrid resolutions. The last one was a nail-biter, but it made us realize how we need to understand and be involved in the process.
I also understood that we had GREAT SUPPORT and real momentum in the greater community – that people I didn’t know were taking to writing op-eds in the newspaper, and asking honest questions on social media, blogs and forums on why this bigotry is happening in SD.
We thought we could catch our breath, to think and act strategically, but since January South Dakota has been home to 24 Islamophobic and anti-immigrant/refugee speakers – what I call “imported hate”. So we’ve been busy, being strategic, exposing Islamophobic speakers in the media, to legislators and community leaders. We’ve been providing accurate information so the public can decide what this bigotry looks like, feels like and how it is impacting us – the exact purpose of Free Speech. Bigots can say all the hateful things they want or write anonymous blogs about people, their beliefs, their religion, their lifestyles. And calling it an intrusion on “Freedom of Speech” again exposes how little is understood about our Constitution and the protections it affords all of us. There is no protection on First Amendment grounds against private entities. The Constitution protects free speech from GOVERNMENT intrusion and in public spaces. The rest is up to the public to decide.
So for the last 11 months we have been reacting and strategically planning. I inherently believe that we South Dakotans are good, moral, hard working and that we are taught to hate/fear others through imported hate. And let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to fear someone you have never met, seen, broken bread with, or heard from. That’s why SD Voices for Peace is embarking on a statewide storytelling campaign to highlight our collective experiences in being South Dakotan. Because guess what, Muslims like to ride Harleys and go fishing too!