Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
This piece has been retracted, since the two "Florida Republicans" turned out to be imposters.
TAMPA, Florida – They were classic buttoned-up conservatives, but I couldn’t believe my ears. “Are you guys performance artists?” No, Robert snorted.
Just a few minutes earlier, two men who identified themselves as Robert Stevens and John Nelson had handed me a flyer. It explained that they wanted the state of Florida to pass a “Protect the Polls law” under which “anyone suspected of committing voter fraud can be fired upon – provided the weapon is registered and operated by its licensed owner.”
The two 28-year-olds, who said they were from West Palm Beach, were straight out of central casting for Young Republicans. I was trying to figure out if they were as crazy as they sounded or were just trying to punk everyone.
Robert said that “illegals and other people without government IDs” were committing voter fraud. I outlined a scenario, “I’m a gun owner. I go to the polls. I have my gun. So, how does it work? There’s this guy who looks like an illegal alien, and he looks pretty shifty – ”
“And you shoot him,” said Robert, cutting me off. After some more questioning and deciding that I would need to see identification, Robert added, “I think a gun owner should be able to ask for ID and help us police the poll, protect the polls.”
I continued: “So if I think this looks like a fake ID and he tries to go in –”
Robert: “Use your gun. Use your gun.”
Me: “I can cap him?”
Robert: “Yep, yep.”
Now, when I first saw Robert and John at the rally against voter suppression in Tampa’s Centennial Park I didn’t pay them much attention. Striding by I thought was ballsy, as was showing up with Romney buttons and wading into a lion’s den of protesters fired up about the Republican strategy to roll back hard-won voting rights.
I was more interested in talking to Krown Deon. A St. Petersburg native, Krown said he served 10 years in a state penitentiary for selling an ounce of cocaine to an undercover cop. He was released from prison a decade ago, got custody of his three boys – “Their mamas weren’t doing too well,” he explained – and supported them by working as a baker and a travelling musician. One is studying medical science in college, and a second just started.
Then in 2008, Krown said, “When the hype came with the whole Obama thing, I had been out long enough to get my rights restored.” Four years later, on the eve of the 2012 election, he discovered his ability to vote had been stripped away.
When I circled back, Robert and John had attracted a crowd and were handing out flyers. A Fox News reporter was dribbling out weak questions, so I dove in. “You’re saying … if someone is at the polls and they think someone else is committing voter fraud…”
“They should be sure, hopefully they should be sure,” Robert clarified.
Me: “And they’re like pretty sure, they should be able to shoot the person?”
Robert: “Yes, yeah.”
John: “Or present their weapon…”
Robert: “Well, if this law is passed that would be within their rights.”
John: “But this is not law and we don’t want to encourage anyone to anything illegal because that’s the last thing we want to do. We don’t want people to be hurt.”
Me: “You just want to make it legal to shoot suspected…”
John: “It’s legal to stand your ground right now if you feel threatened.”
Robert: “We don’t want people shot but we want to keep the wrong people away from the polls.”
A cyclone of anger was swirling around us. Chants of “Fox News lies” and “Show us your tax returns” and braying vuvuzelas lashed our ears. At one point I stepped back from the knot of reporters and calmed the crowd down, counseling that these guys would hang themselves with their own words. But the inflamed passions erupted again and a rally organizer politely asked them to leave because they were disrupting the event.
I was muttering these guys are performance artists or a ploy by some liberal group. No one could be that extreme. But I quickly ruled out those possibilities. A political prankster would not be so sick as to torment people who bore the historical scars of voter intimidation. And the Democrats would not risk such a bizarre stunt.
I caught up with them as they walked away from the fracas. Robert said they were “supporters” of the Republican Party and platform, adding “we try not to affiliate” with the party. “We don’t want to bring on, you know …”
They wouldn’t tell me who was behind their website. The domain was registered on Aug. 20 through Domains by Proxy, a private registration service. They have a Twitter account with three followers and are peddling $35 tee shirts that say in small type “NO ID?” above “VOTE AND DIE!” in huge type (mocking the “Vote or Die” campaign).
As we parted ways I mentioned to one of the remaining reporters that I thought it was a prank. He shook his head no, and spat out, “Fucking crazy.” He turned to his cameraman and said, “We finally got something.” I heard another journalist say the same thing, and I thought the same thing as well.
We lapped up the wingnuttery because it sells. Just like every product is new and improved, the right becomes ever more extreme because yesterday outrage has become part of the discourse.
When Republicans first started screeching about virtually non-existent voter fraud, I thought it would fall on deaf ears. Who could take a party seriously that’s main selling point is Jim Crow 2.0? Unfortunately, the right knows from decades of experience that by spreading a crooked lie with a straight face it can game a media that dutifully reports every outrageous fiction as a legitimate perspective.
Krown Deon’s experience is a snapshot in the right’s organized campaign to deny voting rights to the poor and African-Americans. The mainstream media is incapable of uttering the underlying truth: The Tea Party, the odious heart of the GOP, is racist. It’s an ideologically gated community of old conservative whites who barely veil their racist bile. They hate Blacks – “welfare recipients.” They hate Latinos – “illegals.” And they hate Muslims – they don’t even bother using code words for them.
The Republican-Tea Party wants to cut social welfare that’s puny compared to corporate welfare, the war machine and road building, which subsidizes the right’s base in suburbs and small towns. The annual bill for the homeowner interest tax deduction alone – more than $200 billion – is more than every social program minus Medicaid combined, and 70 percent of the benefit goes to households that earn more $104,000 a year. The Tea Party never seems concerned about kicking those welfare queens off the dole.
I won’t say the mainstream media is entirely to blame, but it is a crackhead so fixated on the latest rush of scandal it is too addled to explain how voter suppression is part of an undeniable history of vicious racism. And the media is the media of the 1%, so it denies that we live in the best democracy money can buy, where policy and politicians are sold off to the highest bidder.
It’s why, despite my skepticism, I think Protect the Polls is the real deal. Robert and John had the natural patter of demented logic that infects the right: Obama is a Kenyan-born Nazi Muslim socialist; global warming is a liberal plot; the earth is 6,000 years old; rape is a form of conception.
Perhaps Protect the Polls and the vision of righteous suburban warriors gunning down illegal Mexicans and criminal blacks sneaking into the polls will remain in the noxious backwater from which it sprang.
But with a militarized border that shames the Berlin Wall, a prison system that turns the torture of black and brown bodies into a profitable commodity, “stand your ground” laws that encourage open season of minority youth, and reporting from a city under martial law as the media pretty-up our democratic corpse for prime time, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Arun Gupta is an editor of the Indypendent. He's writing a book about the decline of American Empire to be published by Haymarket Books.
A version of this article originally appeared on Alternet.