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Fairbanks Craigslist 'rants' peel back layers of anti-Native racism

Jill Burke

Something foul is in the air in Fairbanks, Alaska's Golden Heart city, and this time it's not woodsmoke smog.

The Interior city notorious for toxic wintertime air quality is apparently also home to a handful of toxic online commenters who, under the cover of anonymity, have been using the "Rants and Raves" section of the online forum Craigslist to demean Alaska Natives. 

"Natives blame white people for their problems, but will not return our technology and live as their ancestors did," wrote one poster, who said Natives also "take white mans money" and "get their lives paid for in the villages." (Spelling, grammar and punctuation used in all online posts quoted in this story have been preserved from the original sources.)

In one of the most graphic posts, the writer suggests the solution to annoying street drunks, whom he identifies as Alaska Native, is to round them up and have them killed. Other posts claim Natives have contributed nothing useful to modern society and mock Native culture and tradition.

In a Facebook thread aimed at getting at least one of the offensive posts deleted, which generated more than 100 comments, one writer summed up the situation with a simple "Fairbanks, you have a problem."

A troubled history

Craigslist warns users attempting to access the rants and raves section that they must be “18 and older and understand ‘rants and raves’ may include offensive content.” Yet the more than monthlong series of posts, which include references to violence, raises the question: Have they crossed the line? 

Taken together with other recent race-based incidents in the state, and Alaska's and Alaska Native history, the posts expose attitudes and stereotypes many say Alaska Natives still experience.

“We have to not tolerate this behavior or turn a blind eye to it,” said Elizabeth Medicine Crow, president of First Alaskans Institute, which through its Alaska Native Dialogues on Racial Equity project has sought to combat racism in Alaska. Medicine Crow is one of a handful of people Alaska Dispatch News asked to review the posts.

It's unclear how many people are paying attention to the Fairbanks posts. By mid-July, at least two dozen posts on topic remained on the site. The posts have appeared during a summer in which anti-Native sentiment has already disrupted one cultural event. Last month, a racial incident interrupted an Alaska Native dance and culture festival in Juneau. A white man grabbed an American flag out of the hands of a 67-year-old Native veteran during the event's parade and began yelling racial slurs at the man and the crowd, according to Juneau police. The suspect has since been arrested in a separate incident in which police say he threatened a black woman.

Then there is Alaska’s longer history with Natives as targets. In 2009, an Alaska Native man was attacked in the streets of downtown Anchorage by a young man and woman who sought him out solely because of his race. A young white couple chased, threw eggs at and shoved their victim, who was making his way to a homeless shelter. They yelled racial slurs, mocked a Native accent, made derogatory references to drinking liquor, threatened to hurt him and refused to leave him alone despite his repeated pleas. They recorded the attack and posted the video to YouTube. The couple later admitted in federal court to a felony hate crime. 

In 2001, a group of three teens videotaped themselves firing frozen paint balls at downtown pedestrians, seeking out as their victims Alaska Natives who had been drinking.

A tolerance for racism?

Alaska Natives aren't the only discussion topic in the rants and raves section of Craigslist. You'll also find complaints about bad customer service and drug dealers, compliments for attractive baristas and bicyclist-friendly drivers, a plea for information about a mysteriously missing dog -- these and other posts from a cross-section of life experiences and topics. But the threads regarding Alaska Natives are decidedly more vitriolic, more inflammatory and more prolific.

“I think that it is tolerated because people think you can say whatever you want on Craigslist. I also think it is tolerated because if it (targets) Alaska Natives there is a certain numbness, and there are other things stopping people from coming forward and saying it is not OK,” Medicine Crow said.

As an example, she said, if a writer were to suggest violence against schoolchildren, there would likely be some reaction. One hopes, she said, that law enforcement would check on the author to find out if they were in fact a potential or serious threat. But the same sentiment offered against Alaska Natives doesn't seem to inspire a similar response.  

There are many reasons people are hesitant to speak out against anti-Native hate speech, Medicine Crow said, offering four examples. One reason is that people have different philosophies on what action to take and what impact racism has on each person individually. Another reason is that some people may be "numb to it" because it happens so often or is too painful to acknowledge. Another reason includes a belief by some that speaking out only fuels the offenders by giving them attention. And yet, Medicine Crow said, there are still others who feel extreme and hurtful language should be dealt with head on, exposed and discouraged -- not as an exercise to restrict free speech but because the racist message has the potential to cause real hurt and harm.

Medicine Crow is of the opinion it should be addressed.

It's one thing to say “I don't like Native people,” and quite another to say “I don't like Native people and we need to get rid of them,” Medicine Crow said. Both statements are problematic, she said, but the latter is more worrisome in that it may predict the potential for real-life danger.

Medicine Crow's concern is this: such rants can usually be found in the histories of people committing violence, such as those responsible for some of the mass shootings in the United States' recent history. Think of the notebook of James Holmes, accused murderer of 12 people at a Colorado movie theater, sent to a professor before the attack. Or the YouTube rant by Elliot Rodger, accused of killing six people in California, in which he promises revenge on sorority girls. Or the manifesto Seung-Hui Cho sent to the media in advance of the Virginia Tech killings, which left 32 people dead.

Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project, called it “astonishing” that the anti-Native posts remained available online. Her project works to limit speech that contributes to mass violence.

“Some of the posts describe horrifying violence. It is easy to guess that someone would be frightened by them.” said Benesch, who also teaches at the School of International Service at American University and is a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

No reasoning with ignorance

Comments circulating on Facebook about the posts haven't expressed fear as much as they have disappointment and, in some cases, anger. 

"We all have the right to free speech. Let this guy vent and let karma work it's magic," wrote one commenter in response to a post about the Craigslist posts on the I am Yup'ik Facebook page.

Others suggest the Craigslist authors with such strong anti-Native attitudes get out of Alaska. 

Still others speak of how there is a larger history in Alaska of colonization and assimilation unacknowledged by the hateful attitudes. "Remind this guy that White people brought the Great Death and brought alcohol with them that hurt native people immensely," wrote another poster to the Facebook thread. 

This remark gets at an aspect of the Alaska Native experience that Ernestine Hayes, author and an assistant English professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, often lectures about. 

In her lecture, “What shall we to do with our histories,” she talks about the wounds Alaska Natives carry with them as their culture “fights for its life” in the modern era. Over the years, Alaska Natives have been dealt what Hayes characterizes as a killing blow. Systematic acts of removal, assimilation and conversion -- being separated from their land, language, religion, children and authority -- caused deep traumas that Alaska Natives are still working through. High school dropout rates, poverty, suicide, alcoholism, anger and shame, Hayes argues, are among the legacies of this trauma.

Yet despite attempts at destruction, Hayes emphasizes that the culture has survived. While the Craigslist posts may intentionally or unintentionally pick at the wounds of that struggle, Hayes says the authors' disparaging characterizations fall apart when Alaska's history is viewed from a wider perspective, which she offers in this excerpt from her lecture:

“Native cultures and social systems were sophisticated and complex before European contact and they remain so today. We do well to remind ourselves that, had the colonial invasion not taken place, Alaska Native people would still be living in the 21st century. Our lives would still be modern.”

As for the extremists -- in this case the authors of the anti-Native Craigslist posts -- “We cannot expect to reason them away from their ignorance,” Hayes said. 

Content remains despite user "flags"

Several commenters in the Facebook thread share Hayes' view. Some have also noticed how the first hate-filled post seemed to pave the way for more.

“Its amazing to see how one message allowed for so many other people to feel like its ok to post racist rants,” observed one writer who noted that she'd taken time to “flag” the offensive posts. 

One way Craigslist curtails problematic material is through community moderation. If enough people flag a post as prohibited, it gets taken down. “Offensive, obscene, defamatory, threatening, or malicious postings” are among the items Craigslist identifies as prohibited.

Yet despite this movement on social media to flag the Fairbanks content, much of it remains. That may be because one post in particular, which complained about drunk Natives asking for money, and which suggested Alaska Natives never advanced until the white man came along, was specifically referenced in the effort. This individual post is no longer available to view. According to a note on the site, the posting had been “flagged for removal.”

In that post, the writer complained about getting harassed by Natives, about being asked by them for money, and about “drunk natives” even trying to take stuff out of shopping carts at the local Fred Meyer store. The writer also questioned why Alaska Native inebriates aren’t arrested for public intoxication, asking “Why do drunk natives get preferred treatment?”

Craigslist did not respond to an inquiry from Alaska Dispatch News about how, when and why it pulls posts and whether the kind of posts taking place now are allowed. Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Law also declined to talk about how and when threatening online posts rise to the level of a crime.

A post to the rants and raves forum on June 16, entitled "Drunk Native Pride (fairbanks)" -- after the initial post, now deleted, entitled "Drunk Natives (Fairbanks) appeared -- took an even more hostile, threatening tone. Once again ranting on the “drunk Native” theme, and claiming “this isn’t hate, it's real talk,” the poster offers a violent solution: hosting a “Native Pride” parade offering cheap alcohol and allowing the “hard working decent people of Fairbanks” to “throw rocks and/or bullets at the parade.” Any survivors should then be killed in a building fire, according to the post.

The dark side of free speech

“The posts are appalling to me personally. That doesn't mean that they are illegal,” Benesch explained.

“In the U.S. our law protects speech more vigorously than anywhere else. Most of the posts ... are ugly and to me personally are offensive. Most of them are not criminal under the laws of the United States. And in fact, most of that speech is constitutionally protected,” Benesch said.

Even though hate speech may be protected speech, there are two ways it can be harmful, she said. First, it can cause emotional or psychological damage. Second, it can encourage others to despise, discriminate against or even direct violence at the people targeted by the language.

In the case of the latter, it appears the posts have kicked off a month or more of anti-Native rants, some as recent as July 7. There are also a few posts disparaging blacks, whites and some related back-and-forth exchanges about race and culture.

Craigslist's advice for dealing with problematic posts suggests “Do not feed the trolls” -- posters who disrupt online conversations with inflammatory, provocative statements intended to generate emotional responses. Better to ignore and flag the “trolls” than to give them the satisfaction of a response or more material to work with.

According to Benesch, the online world has not yet caught up to social norms upheld elsewhere. Anonymity can make people feel more comfortable saying things online they'd never say in person, she said. Saying hateful or offensive things out loud to another person, with your name attached to it, can inspire speakers to self-censor, knowing they will face community condemnation if they don't.

For example, political candidates know not to openly use racial slurs, as doing so would be a career ender.

This is one aspect of what Benesch refers to as “First Amendment jurisprudence,” the idea that the best way for society to deal with very bad speech is to speak out against it.

In any society there will always be a small number of people with extremist views. “But if the majority of people don't accept a certain kind of speech, or a certain kind of expression of hatred, it is amazing how powerful that can be,” Benesch said.

“There were lots of hurt feelings and every one of you who feel anger, your feelings are validated. You have every right to react the way that you wish,” the I am Yup'ik Facebook page wrote to its readers after they began commenting on the posts. “However, from the wisdom of our elders we know better than this person about our people and our traditions.”

But, they cautioned, “stirring up hateful and spiteful words in return” only shows the authors of hate speech that they have “defeated us.”

I am Yup'ik's suggestion? “Forgive. Judge not lest ye be judged. Return rudeness with kindness. It’s good to be Yup'ik.”