Olathe is one of those Midwestern in-between places that you might drive through without thinking of were it not your destination. The town, formerly farm land about 30 minutes from downtown Kansas City, is now a blend of hemmed-in fields, beige repeating exurbs, chain stores, parking lots, and industry. Garmin’s corporate office and manufacturing center can be found here, and it was in an Olathe bar that Srinivas Kuchibhotla – a Garmin engineer originally from India – was killed by Adam Purinton in an alleged hate crime that has garnered national attention.
Anyone looking for a litmus test for how the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance – fomented on the campaign trail in 2016 and actualized in policy in 2017—has incited hateful, xenophobic actions need look no further than Olathe.
What’s important to keep in mind is that Purinton’s crime did not occur in a vacuum. I’ve lived in Kansas off and on for decades and learned that the people of this state are guardedly friendly and highly pragmatic. But Trump’s rhetoric has flipped a switch in the minds of many. It has permitted their instinctual drives and prejudices to override their adherence to cultural norms, to the extent that they can vocally celebrate the idea of large-scale deportations and wholesale banning of immigrant groups where they once counted some immigrants among their friends.
In the last year, Kansas has played host to a virulent strain of anti-immigrant sentiment and witnessed attacks against those perceived by locals as “other.” In 2016, the Kansas GOP circulated anti-immigrant mailers stoking fear of immigrants in Kansas communities.
Now in 2017, Kansans in Topeka and Wichita are organizing #MAGA marches to celebrate Trump, who they call “God’s Candidate.” The Facebook event page for the march includes the following nationalistic strapline: “this is OUR land, OUR HOME. If you don’t like it, you can get the hell OUT!”
On the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, several newly-formed white nationalist groups have posted fliers seeking joiners, and swastikas have been painted in local high schools and parks. In Garden City, three members of a known hate group “were charged with plotting to mass murder Muslims”.
It is against this backdrop that an Austrian white nationalist, convicted of hate speech in her native country, being invited to speak at the behest of the Douglas County GOP makes perfect, if painful, sense.
Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff’s strongly anti-immigrant presentation – “When Migrants Arrive, Free Speech Falls Apart” – drew an audience of approximately 120 to the small Victory Bible Church in Lawrence. The church, a bland one-story brick building on the main street of an otherwise progressive college town, is one locals’ joke about for its inflammatory and ever-changing marquee lawn sign. Favorite past messages include “Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve” or “God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists. Therefore You Don’t Exist”.
At Victory Bible, the GOP event started with a prayer service and moved seamlessly into Sabaditsch-Wolff’s presentation, a rant that lurched from casting doubt on the actual “Syrian-ness” of Syrian refugees to urging the crowd about the importance of sealing the country’s borders against a pervasive and insidious immigrant threat.
This is the hateful context against which a white Kansas man could walk into a bar in late February 2017 and see two peaceful Indian men to be a threat – the sort of menace to American society that the GOP had been repeatedly warning him about.
Adam Purinton, after warning the two men to “get out of [his] country” – language inspired by Trump’s speeches on the campaign trail – exited and later returned to gun down Srinivas Kuchibhotla, his friend and colleague Alok Madasani, and Ian Grillot, an onlooker who tried to intervene. Kuchibholta did not survive.
What this horrific attack demonstrates is that whatever Band-Aid some Midwesterners have stickered over their xenophobia has been ripped off. There appears to be little fear or shame in certain circles now with voicing the unfounded opinion that immigrants pose a threat to America.
Trump’s camp has created a false narrative that hinges on the fear that anyone brown is a danger to anyone who is not. This coupled with the erroneous claim that foreign-born professionals in tech, engineering, and the sciences are stealing the jobs of equally trained and qualified Americans, when the truth is that we cannot fill all of these jobs with US-born employees, has turned the country into a powder keg.
Despite its complicity, the Trump administration was noticeably late to comment on the Olathe shooting, just as it was in response to bomb threats made to Jewish Community Centers and the destruction of Jewish cemeteries. The White House has also refused to join the dots between anti-immigrant speech, government policy, and these racist, anti-immigrant attacks. Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, even went so far as to brand any connection “absurd”.
Immigrant communities are not so blind to cause and effect. They, and the groups supporting them, see a direct correlation between the outpouring of hate speech and the recent horrors.
Moussa Elbayoumy, chairman of the Kansas chapter of The Council on American Islamic Relations (Cair), says that Kansan Muslims have been increasingly targeted since the election by “emboldened fringe groups and individuals who hold racist, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant feelings, who felt justified by the election results and views expressed by the administration and its early decisions, resulting in a visible increase in hate crimes, harassment, acts of violence and discrimination.”
Issa Spatrisano, community orientation coordinator at the Kansas City office of Jewish Vocational Services, cites the same effects as responsible for the stresses endured by the immigrant and refugee populations she works with. She says her response to the initial Immigration Executive Order (EO), was “like there had been a death in [their] office.”
Since that first order, Spatrisano has seen “first-hand the chaos and uncertainty refugees faced as they [waited] to see if their family members scheduled to arrive would do so”. She also expresses dismay upon discovering that 60,000 refugees would be denied a chance at a new life.
“I believe that the EO has created a divide between refugees and the community, when what we need is a bridge,” she adds.
Kansas City immigration attorney Matthew Hoppock reports widespread fear among his clients affected both by the EO and Trump’s turbo-charging of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division.
“Everyone is scared, even clients who already have lawful immigration status…Everyone wants to know if they are at risk of being arrested,” he said. Hoppock has already had to deal with an incident where one client with lawful resident status was threatened at his workplace.
Yet where there’s fear, there is also hope. Trump’s rhetoric has cultivated an active resistance in Lawrence, Kansas City, and across the region. Members of this resistance have stepped up in support of immigrants and the organizations allied with them.
“While the EO has lasting negative impacts on refugee resettlement, [JVS has received a] massive and welcoming response…an increase in volunteers, donations, and welcoming events has been consistent and at times overwhelming,” says Spatrisano.
Cair also reports an increased public interest in their cause. “[There has been] unprecedented support from many groups and newly formed coalitions that express clear rejection of the divisive attempts along racial, ethnic, national origin, or religious lines,” says Elbayoumy.
Last week bore witness to a set-piece confrontation between this resistance and the hate-mongerers emboldened by the Trump administration. At Victory Bible Church, while inside Sabadistch-Wolff spoke emphatically of locking down borders to peals of applause, outside around 75 protestors held signs reading “Hate has no home here” and “Love they neighbor.”
The battle lines have been drawn.
Photo Credit: Thea Perry