Bruce Springsteen music blared on the streets of Lower Manhattan on Sunday at a rally against a proposed Islamic cultural center, Park 51, located a few blocks from Ground Zero. One scene from the protest, captured on a YouTube video, reflected the oddly populist tone of the opposition to the so-called (severely mislabeled) “Ground Zero Mosque.”
A man in a white cap, later identified as a union carpenter, was mistaken for a Muslim by a tough-looking crowd. A hostile exchange ensued with another man wearing a hard-hat, while the mob surrounded them with anti-Muslim chanting. After bystanders diffused the confrontation, the Wall Street Journal reported, someone in the crowd cried, “Yo, we’re against Muslims, not each other, man.”
Like the folksy vitriol of the Tea Partiers, working-class solidarity has lately come to mesh with a phalanx of rage over the proposed development, which critics see as an insult to the victims of 9/11. The blend of class anxiety and right-wing ideology has crystallized into a campaign known as the “Hard Hat Pledge,” an online declaration that encourages building-trade workers to vow not to participate in the construction of Park 51. Launching a preemptive strike against the community center, the manifesto proclaims, “Without us this sacrilige [sic] cannot be built.”
Now, you might expect this controversy to serve as fodder for the xenophobic screeds of blowhards like Newt Gingrich. But why would blue-collar New Yorkers enlist their labor power in the anti-mosque crusade?
Leave aside the fact that the proposed community center is not a mosque but a YMCA-like recreational facility, supported by many community groups. From a worker’s standpoint, aren’t there potential new jobs that could come from Park 51? And wouldn’t the interfaith development add some much needed color and economic activity to an area still marred by a ragged hole where the Twin Towers once stood?
Yet some workers see it as a matter of symbolism. Manhattan construction worker L.V. Spina, for example, told the Daily News, “Hell, you could do it next to my house in Rockaway Beach, I would be fine with it. But I’m not fine with it where blood has been spilled.”
To explore the supposed labor angle in the no-mosque-in-my-backyard movement, In These Times caught up with Andy Sullivan, the construction worker (and former Ground Zero volunteer) who launched the Hard Hat Pledge on his blog, Blue Collar Corner.
Sullivan did agree with supporters of Park 51 on one point: that the debate has spiraled away from the proposed project itself.
“It’s not just the mosque now,” he said. President Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s defense of the Park 51 project show that “It’s just another example of the ruling class once again going against the will of the people. And it’s time we stood up… Enough is enough.”
The pledge has reportedly gathered several thousand signers. Sullivan claimed they include not only local workers in the building trades, but also businesses in the building sector and many other supporters around the country.
While saying he respects civil liberties, Sullivan framed his argument in the rhetoric of economic justice, revealing the social frustration fueling the debate around the mosque meme. “Most people right now are living the American Dream in reverse… The middle class is gradually racing to lower class, almost to poverty class,” Sullivan said.
But what does this have to do with the proposed community center? In Sullivan’s view, the elite supporters of the development are essentially telling desperate workers, “’We have jobs for you and money for you. But you have to sell your values and principles and your soul…. and then you can participate in building this brilliant victory mosque so the whole world can hear the message that radical Islam took down the United States.’”
Activists might read such statements as a sign that class antagonism has been co-opted by bigoted conservatives. On the other hand, the Hard Hat Pledge encapsulates a strand of populism with deep historical roots: the reaction of a marginalized underclass to deep perceptions of instability and alienation. Park 51 has become a lightning rod for reactionary emotions, which are in turn easily hijacked by those waging ideological war on religious pluralism.
Teacher and union member Linda Milazzo blogged at Alternet about the dangerous collusion of labor and right-wing agendas:
Unions exist to negotiate the best possible work environment and compensation for their members. However, nowhere do unsubstantiated fear, contempt for religion, or resurgent memory factor into union contracts as negotiable provisions for worker rights and protection.
Actually, Milazzo’s warning about unions is a bit off, since the Hard Hat brigade so far appears to be detached from formal unions. The Building Trades Employers’ Association told the Daily News that while union leaders understood why Park 51 might upset some workers, “unions have not yet taken a ‘formal position’” on the issue. (The BTEA did not offer any further comment about its position to ITT.)
Neutrality on Park 51 won’t fly with the activists who see the controversy as a potentially catalyzing issue for progressives. Michael Letwin, a coordinator for New York City Labor Against the War, told ITT that enlightened elements in the labor movement should see the anti-Muslim firestorm as a platform for broaching fundamental issues of civil rights and social equity:
New York City Labor Against the War deplores the witch-hunt against Park51, including attacks on it from within the construction trades. Racism and Islamophobia have no place in the labor movement.
The hysteria against Park51 reflects a well-financed campaign to divide working people by scapegoating Arabs, Muslims, immigrants and people of color for the deepening economic crisis. It is no surprise that its leaders are against labor unions, Social Security, unemployment benefits, national health care, and compensation for Ground Zero first responders.
Their hate campaign also aims to bolster increasingly unpopular wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, while defending Israeli apartheid. This explains participation of the Anti-Defamation League and other “mainstream” witch-hunters. Both abroad and at home, workers have paid a terrible price for such war, occupation and colonialism.
There’s more than one battlefront at Ground Zero. Turn back to Sunday’s showdown between the carpenter and the hard hat. Suddenly, the drab building slated to house Park 51 fades into the backdrop. The mob zeroes in on a fellow worker mistaken for “the enemy.” The crowd’s roar drowns out any suggestion of reasoned discussion. Instead, we see a grainy image of America at war with itself, struggling for the soul of a neighborhood fraught with unfulfilled promises.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.