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Kent County Sheriff Stelma is either stupid or in denial about intimidation being un-American

July 30, 2018

Last Thursday, MLive ran an article about an action that took place at Kent County Commissioner Saalfeld’s house because of his refusal to end the contract that the county has with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In that MLive article, Kent County Sheriff, Larry Stelma, was quoted as saying:

“Trying to intimidate anyone just isn’t the American way.”

Now, it is important to state up front, as someone who was part of that action at Commissioner Saalfelds house, that it was designed to expose him for the harm he is complicit in, specifically the harm done by ICE agents to immigrant families in West Michigan. There was no intimidation tactics, since people came to his house to ask him to commit to ending the contract the county has with ICE and to let his neighbors know what his position was on the matter. 

Having said that, it is astounding that someone like Sheriff Stelma can make such a statement. Does he really believe what he said or is he in deep denial about what America is all about? Do people like the Sheriff simply internalize the values of the system or is what he said simply what he was coached to say, since it is meant to put attention back on those protesting Commissioner Saalfeld and away from the county’s complicity in the harm being done by ICE. Either way, let’s take a moment to unpack the comment from Sheriff Stelma about intimidation being un-American.

Putting aside what most of us learned in civics class or US history from grade school all the way through college, what can we say about intimidation in US history? One need look no further than two of the fundamental pillars of what the US was founded on – Genocide and Slavery.

The US history of Settler Colonialism was predicated on intimidation. Indigenous communities and nations were intimidated by US militia and the US military to vacate their lands or suffer the consequences. This was the practice from the very beginning of US Settler Colonialism, from the 17th century all the way up to the present, as is well documented in books like, An Indigenous People’s History of the US, by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz.

The legalized slavery that the US utilized throughout the country and particularly in the South, was also based on the use of intimidation. Africans were sold into slavery and the threat of violence was constantly asserted once Africans were property. If you don’t work fast enough, if you don’t obey the master or if you look at the master’s wife a certain way, were all means of intimidation in order to keep those in slavery compliant and submissive.

In fact, the whole history of White Supremacy in the US is based on intimidation. Even after chattel slavery was outlawed, the US legal system found ways to use intimidation as a means of keeping African Americans as second class citizens, whether it was through the use of Jim Crow laws, terrorist groups like the KKK or legalized segregation which constantly used intimidation as a tactic. If you drink from this fountain or use this bathroom or if you don’t sit at the back of the bus, there will be consequences. This normalized use of intimidation can still be seen through the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, where the black community is under a constant state of intimidation by the systems of power and privilege that dominate the US.

How about the economic system of capitalism? If you don’t perform at a certain pace or constantly produce more or if you want to organize your fellow workers, there is always the use of intimidation by the capitalist class. You can lose your job, you can lose your benefits or you can lose your pension if you do not comply with your employer.

Here’s another one, US foreign policy. If we think for a moment about the history of US foreign policy, we can easily see that the US has been intimidating countries for two centuries. Being the most militarized country on the planet, intimidation comes easy. If your country wants to question the US, you will be intimidated at United Nations gatherings. If you side with an opponent of the US, the US will impose sanctions on you. If you dare to develop your own nuclear capability, the US will intimidate you into submission or they will bomb the hell out of you.

Hell, if one wanted to look at the use of intimidation as a tactic in the US, one need look no further than the very profession that Sheriff Stelma is a part of. All law enforcement agencies use intimidation as a means to keep people from doing things that cops don’t want them to do.

How many of us have the experience of being pulled over by the cops and not feel intimidated? This is especially true in communities of color, based on the history of police abuse in those communities.

This brings us back to the issue of why people were confronting Commissioner Saalfeld in the first place, which led to Stelma’s comment about intimidation being un-American. The very function of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is to intimidate immigrant communities. Immigrant communities live in absolute fear of what ICE and other law enforcement agencies could do to them, whether they are going to the grocery store, picking their children up from school, driving to work or simply relaxing in their homes.

The very fact that Sheriff Larry Stelma can make such a claim about intimidation demonstrates he is either really, really stupid, oblivious to US history or he is in deep denial about what his Sheriff’s Department is primarily about.

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