Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Today’s Trump taunts echo an intolerant past

Trump interrupted more than 12 times by protesters at NC rally

Republican front-runner Donald Trump stopped his Fayetteville rally speech more than a dozen times as protesters were removed from the Crown Coliseum on March, 9, 2016. Ten thousand supporters had shown up for the event.
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Republican front-runner Donald Trump stopped his Fayetteville rally speech more than a dozen times as protesters were removed from the Crown Coliseum on March, 9, 2016. Ten thousand supporters had shown up for the event.

Before former first lady Nancy Reagan’s funeral began on Friday, cable news cameras focused on former California Gov. Pete Wilson. Nearly 20 years removed from his time in Sacramento, Wilson looked distinguished in a dark suit while schmoozing with other famous and notable guests at the memorial services for the widow of President Ronald Reagan.

Among an A-list crowd of American politics, it was hard to imagine that Wilson was the Donald Trump of his day.

Wilson wasn’t bombastic like the billionaire developer, who has taken intolerance mainstream in his quest to secure the Republican presidential nomination. A courtly and decent man in many respects, Wilson wasn’t crude or crass like Trump. But the governor of California for most of the 1990s exploited politics to divide people for his own gain, as Trump is doing today.

The vitriol unleashed following Wilson’s support for Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to ban undocumented immigrants from social services, was a forerunner for Trump 2016.

Approved overwhelmingly by California voters, Proposition 187 would later be invalidated by court order. But in the short term, Wilson rode the emotion of pushing back at undocumented foreigners to a landslide re-election in 1994. While Wilson won, everyone else lost.

Omar Gonzalez, a Sacramento attorney, remembers how he and other Latino students experienced the fallout from Proposition 187 when he was an undergraduate at Sacramento State in the mid-1990s. “It was surreal,” Gonzalez said of the snickering and catcalls that Latino students would face on campus as Proposition 187 politics raged in the public domain.

“As a U.S. citizen, it saddened me that there would be this negative attitude toward anyone perceived to be an immigrant or Latino descent,” he said.

Proposition 187 enabled people to hurl phrases such as “wetback” and “beaner” in the public square. Such epithets didn’t go viral in those days because there was no Facebook, Twitter or iPhones. But the emotions Trump has exploited to become the GOP front-runner were alive in the Proposition 187 campaign.

Despite Trump creating fear and anxiety over the U.S.-Mexico border, as Wilson did in 1994, the numbers tell a different story. The Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center estimates that the flow of Mexicans entering the United States has been dropping since 2005. More than a million Mexicans and their families returned to Mexico, according to the Pew Study. It says, “U.S. census data for the same period show an estimated 870,000 Mexican nationals left Mexico to come to the U.S., a smaller number than the flow of families from the U.S. to Mexico.”

But facts don’t always shape our cultural shadows; attacks do. As a reporter in those Wilson years, I wrote many stories about young people who felt besieged. Supporters of 187 say their targets were undocumented people. Gonzalez, and many others, say they felt they were in the firing line as well. Their ethnicity made them guilty by association.

Every time you think we won’t go back to the bad old days, and every time you think targeting people based on how they look or where they are from is no longer acceptable, the worst of the past gets new life in the present.

The intolerance of Trump has an ominous ring of déjà vu today.

Every time you think we won’t go back to the bad old days, and every time you think targeting people based on how they look or where they are from is no longer acceptable, the worst of the past gets new life in the present.

“I remember the 1960s and ’70s. It was also permissible to engage in that kind of discourse before things changed,” said Marc Grossman, a longtime spokesman for the United Farm Workers union and close friend and ally to UFW founder Cesar Chavez.

“I was at the San Jose airport with (Chavez) in 1979 when a woman came up to him and told him to go back to Mexico,” he said. “His family had been in the United States since the 1880s, longer than mine. For a while (afterward) that kind of bigotry was kept in hiding because it wasn’t socially acceptable. But now people feel entitled to let it show.”

At Trump rallies, African American protesters have been physically attacked more than once in recent months. Trump has said he would ban Muslims from entering the United States if he becomes president. Just last week, CNN reported that Republican voters in the Mississippi primary responded well to that message. Trump said in a recent interview that “Islam hates” the United States.

Those words have impact. A few weeks ago, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, addressed an overflow crowd of mostly Muslim residents at a symposium at Sacramento State. As Matsui recounted how her family was rounded up with other Japanese American families and sent to internment camps during World War II, many in the audience related to her message.

Some told their own stories of being afraid to go out in public on the streets of Sacramento in traditional Muslim dress. They told stories of kids being harassed in local schools.

Basim Elkarra, a leader of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the current climate is dangerous. “What Trump is saying reinforces what Islam extremists are saying,” he said. “That there is a war against Islam.”

Matsui said some citizens stood with Japanese Americans as they were being interned during World War II. But political leaders set the tone. Japanese Americans, many of whom were American citizens, became prisoners in the United States because of their ancestry.

For decades afterward, Japanese Americans or other Asians still commonly heard derogatory comments. But President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. With it came acknowledgment that internment was wrong. That it was a dark period in American history. That the politics of fear and bigotry that made internment possible had no place in our country now.

Now here we are in the time of Trump. Now, again, some feel empowered to vent their worst impulses at people who look different from them.

Officials from Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills apologized last week for the actions of students who shouted racial epithets at Japanese American athletes on the girls basketball team at McClatchy High School. There were chants of “soy sauce” and “small eyes.” But they didn’t stop there.

“We have one player with a heavier build, and every time she came in they would yell, ‘Outback Steakhouse,’ ” McClatchy parent Glen Kumamoto told The Bee. “They would yell, ‘You’re ugly.’ 

Kelly Wooster, a Calaveras County planning commissioner, joked at a public meeting last week that Mexicans were akin to “invasive species.”

Some of his colleagues objected later. But in the moment, some laughed. Such incidents are piling up these days. In December, a state worker attacked Muslim men as they prayed in a Castro Valley park. Last week, an older white man at a Trump rally was caught on camera elbowing an African American protester in the face.

Matsui said this is what happens when people are encouraged to fear others. In 1994, Wilson didn’t call Mexicans rapists as Trump has today. But he embraced a nativist campaign that made “illegals” a public enemy. Wilson didn’t resort to epithets, but some supporters of Proposition 187 did.

The nation is changing fundamentally, and that kind of intolerance, as much as it’s been blown up in the media, is like a last gasp of people who want to return to days that never were.

Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers Union

In the end, whether political candidates divide people directly or indirectly doesn’t make a difference. The damage is done just the same.

A veteran of civil rights movements, Grossman said he would like to believe that such incidents are on the wane.

“The nation is changing fundamentally, and that kind of intolerance, as much as it’s been blown up in the media, is like a last gasp of people who want to return to days that never were,” he said.

Maybe, but that last gasp always seems to find new oxygen.

Protesters celebrate after successfully stopping Donald Trump from speaking at a scheduled campaign rally at the UIC Pavillon in Chicago due to security reasons.

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