Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Let the Chips Fall

For ten years now, my colleagues and I have maintained silence on one specific example of showboat non-profits that hoard philanthropic resources at the expense of authentic community activism, as well as to the detriment of the human rights movement in the United States. With Harper's expose last week of Southern Poverty Law Center's resting on its laurels while rolling in dough, I figured it was time to let the chips fall where they may.

Back in the mid 1990s--when violent militias were running amok robbing banks, assaulting human rights activists, and bombing federal buildings--our national volunteer investigative research network was busy getting the goods on ringleaders that were later used in indictments to put them behind bars. Our volunteers gathered this information at personal risk to life and limb, so when SPLC initiated a campaign to grandstand on the seizure of the Aryan Nations campground through a lawsuit they filed, we had an uncomfortable feeling they were out to take credit for much more than they deserved.

As it turned out, we were right. SPLCs enormous marketing machine soon had the philanthropic world (and the public) thinking the militia movement (including Aryan Nations) was history due to SPLCs brilliant legal maneuvering. Unfortunately, what became history was the largest grassroots human rights organization in the country (Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity), painstakingly built by Bill Wassmuth and Eric Ward.

At the time, I felt misgivings about SPLCs obscene ten million dollar bank account, but was reluctant to speak publicly given their important civil rights litigation. Now that SPLC is worth over $100 million, I think we can safely say its priorities are skewed. Given that this blood money was garnered by killing off what SPLC apparently perceived as competition from pro-democracy volunteers, I'd go so far as to say Southern Poverty Law Center has become a net liability to the human rights movement.

As a lesson in politics, the SPLC fiasco might serve to enlighten us about celebrity activism, and the ignominous result of excluding public participation from the public's business by a philanthropic culture of elitist professionalism. As a lesson in humanities, it should serve to distinguish between investing in a social movement based on ideas, and a pseudo movement based on the cult of personalities. With the return of the militias, both our liberty and our lives are at stake.


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