May 30, 2008
By Judith Martínez-Sadri
Threats of death and lynching that used to be directed at civil rights leaders in the 1960s are now being targeted at immigrant rights activists in Georgia. Advocates say state lawmakers are partly to blame for creating an environment in which immigrants are treated as less than human. Judith Martínez-Sadri is editor of Atlanta Latino.
ATLANTA Death threats have not intimidated pro-Latino activists in Georgia. Instead, they have spurred them to join forces across racial lines to counteract the anti-immigrant atmosphere that has taken on a sinister tone in the state.
Less than a week after Rich Pellegrino called a group of human rights organizations together to protest the sale of a racist T-shirt, he received a shocking death threat at the door of his home.
It had been a rough week for Pellegrino, director of the Cobb Immigrant Alliance, who protested in front of Mulligan’s Bar and Grill in Marietta with other activists on May 13.
The objective was to urge the owner of the establishment to suspend the sale of a T-shirt that depicted a drawing of Curious George with a caption that read “Obama in 2008,” which offended the African-American community and the Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
Two days later, Pellegrino was greeted with a death threat on his doorstep.
“I got home at about 10 p.m. from a meeting with some Latino leaders,” said Pellegrino. “I saw a manila envelope at the door that said ‘Cobb Latino Alliance,’ with my name and a sketched drawing of a cross and the year 2008.
“My children said it looked as if there was a man hanging from the cross and that perhaps they were referring to me and that the year 2008 was the year I was going to die,” he said, laughing nervously.
Pellegrino dropped the envelope and went to look for his family. After verifying that they were okay, he called 911, and minutes later Cobb County police officers and fire-fighters showed up at his home, took the envelope and brought it in to investigate its contents.
Pellegrino confessed that the episode caused him to fear for the safety of his family.
“It scared me,” said Pellegrino. “My daughters had been playing in the yard a few minutes earlier; they had called me to tell me that it was raining.”
The incident also shocked him because even though he had received unpleasant e-mails and intimidating phone calls in the past from people who are against his pro-immigrant work, this was the first time he had received a threat of this type at his own home.
“I was in a state of shock - it reminded me of my experiences during the time of the civil rights movement and in the 80s when they arrested me for professing my Baha’i faith and holding meetings with African-Americans in South Carolina,” said Pellegrino. “I was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and arrested by Anglo police officers there.”
Although the threat was an unpleasant situation for Pellegrino, he vows that it will not stop him from his mission of uniting communities and fighting for the rights of immigrants.
“I talked to my wife and said, ‘If you want me to get out of this, I will for my family’s sake.’ She told me that it was too late to turn back and not to give up. I know she doesn’t want me to be intimidated and give up.”
Pellegrino says that he and his family will take certain precautions and be on the alert, but they will not let these threats intimidate them.
The sign in his yard that reads “Welcome immigrants” will remain, and Pellegrino is now preparing to work for immigrants and civil rights with the new organization Cobb United for Change, which emerged after the incident involving the offensive T-shirts against Barack Obama.
THE ENVELOPE AND ITS CONTENTS
According to Dana Pierce, spokesperson for the Cobb County Police Department, the envelope is now being analyzed.
“The suspicious package case is being treated like a hate crime and is considered an active and ongoing investigation,” said Pierce. “We treat these types of cases very seriously, and should the person be caught, they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Pierce added that the envelope contained some red powder that turned out to be harmless red dye.
WHO’S TO BLAME FOR THE THREATS
Threats against immigrant advocacy groups are nothing new in Georgia.
E-mails with messages such as, “You belong on a rope,” letters and telephone calls from anti-immigrants, and even protests during events organized by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), have been directed at GALEO’s executive director, Jerry Gonzalez, in the last two years.
“In October 2005, right after we had established GALEO, I got the first attack by e-mail,” notes Gonzalez. “It was something I was expecting because of the atmosphere in the state at that time.”
According to Gonzalez, every time he is interviewed in the media or GALEO hosts an event, racist messages arrive at a more rapid pace, the organization he directs has had to request support from authorities, and investigations with private detectives and the FBI have been initiated in various cases.
Although the attacks against GALEO have not caused him harm, Gonzalez says that he always remains aware of his surroundings and tries to take precautions.
“I pay attention to where I park my vehicle, and I try to make sure my family is not affected,” says Gonzalez. “Fortunately, the building where our office is located is quite secure, and if I feel that any message I receive is dangerous, I report it to the authorities.”
The activist blames the recent threat received by Rich Pellegrino on the attitude that State Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), one of the authors of Law 529, Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, and Neil Warren, the sheriff of Cobb County, have demonstrated toward the immigrant community.
To Gonzalez, these incidents are the result of their rhetoric on immigration, which has obvious racial overtones.
“Chip Rogers, Neil Warren and Sam Olens have created an environment where people feel they can get away with this kind of action, because if they’re talking about immigration in the way they’re talking about it, then it’s okay for others to react in this way, it’s okay to target immigrants, it’s okay to discriminate against Latinos,” says Gonzalez. “They have created an environment where immigrants are treated as less than human.”
Pellegrino agrees, saying the three lawmakers are partly to blame. “They’re the ones who have initiated this anti-immigrant climate,” he says.
The Cobb County Police Department is expected to conduct an in-depth investigation and determine the perpetrators of the threats.
Jerry González of GALEO says the threats will not intimidate him. “We are working to build a new Georgia, one that includes the Latino community, awakens the voices of tolerance and promotes unity,” says González. “We should work together.”
CHIP ROGERS DISAGREES
The Republican state senator and author of various legislative projects considered to be “anti-immigrant” by the immigrant community, labeled Gonzalez’s comments as “defamatory and libelous,” adding that there was no substantiation for his comments that the activist’s goal was to create a hostile environment. He also expressed his concern over the threat received by Pellegrino.
“My family and I have been the targets of violent threats, so I know exactly how difficult this can be for a person’s family and loved ones,” said Rogers. “I pray for Mr. Pellegrino’s safety and well-being.”
THREATS FORCED HER TO MOVE
But the racist attacks are too much for some Latino groups.
Venus Gines, a Puerto Rican activist and the founder of Latina Woman’s Day, who has been working to provide health services to Latino families for nearly a decade, had to move to another state due to the racist attacks she has received in Georgia.
“We’ve been experiencing threats since 2006 when they trashed the mobile unit for Latina Woman’s Day,” says Gines. “For that reason, we moved from the little house in Norcross to Santa Fe Mall, where there was better security.” Gines adds that her organization received four threats during 2006 and 2007. All were reported to the police, but they were unable to turn up any leads.
Gines, who says she fears more for the safety of her patients than for her own, decided to continue her fight in Texas, far away from messages like, “Even though you survived cancer, you will not survive us” one of the last threats that motivated her to make the decision to move to another state.
“I’m going to continue my mission and go back to work with the Mexican consulate on other health care projects,” says Gines.