On the afternoon of January 6, Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor, legendary activist, writer and longtime contributor to this magazine, received an e-mail from an unknown correspondent. There was no text, just a subject line that read: DIE YOU CUNT. It was not the first piece of hateful e-mail Piven had gotten, nor would it be the last. One writer told her to "go back to Canada you dumb bitch"; another ended with this wish: "may cancer find you soon."
Piven was unnerved but not surprised. These are not pretty e-mails, but they appear positively decorous compared with what has been written about her by commentators on Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze, where she’s been the target of a relentless campaign to demonize her—and worse. There, under cover of anonymous handles, scores of people have called for Piven’s murder, even volunteering to do the job with their own hands. "Somebody tell Frances I have 5000 roundas [sic] ready and I’ll give My life to take Our freedom back," wrote superwrench4. "ONE SHOT…ONE KILL!" proclaimed Jst1425. "The only redistribution I am interested in is that of a precious metal…. LEAD," declared Patriot1952. Posts like these are interwoven with ripples of misogyny, outbursts of bizarre anti-Semitism and crude insults about Piven’s looks (she’s actually a noted beauty) and age (she’s 78).
This fusillade was evidently set off by Piven’s recent Nation editorial calling for a mass movement of the unemployed ["Mobilizing the Jobless," January 10/17]. But Beck has had Piven in his cross-hairs for some time. In the past few years he’s featured Piven, along with her late husband, Richard Cloward, in at least twenty-eight broadcasts, all of which paint them as masterminds of an overarching left-wing plot called "the Cloward-Piven strategy," which supposedly engineered the financial crisis of 2008, healthcare reform, Obama’s election and massive voter fraud, among other world-historical events (see Richard Kim, "The Mad Tea Party," April 12, 2010). Cloward and Piven, Beck once argued, are "fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system." In his most recent diatribe against Piven (January 17) he repeatedly called her "the enemy of the Constitution." In Beck’s telling, because Piven and her comrades on the left support civil disobedience in some circumstances, it is they—not the heavily armed militias of the radical right—who threaten Americans’ safety.
It’s tempting not to dignify such ludicrous distortions with a response. But in brief: Piven, throughout her career as an activist and academic, has embodied the best of American democracy. It has been her life’s work to amplify the voices of the disenfranchised through voter registration drives, grassroots organization and, when necessary, street protest. The way economic injustice warps and erodes our democracy has been a central preoccupation. But passive lament has never been her game. Recognizing the leverage that oppressed groups have—and working with them to use it—is her special genius.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the pseudo-populist right finds her so threatening. The highly personalized and concerted campaign against Piven, already unsettling, takes on added gravity in the context of the recent shootings of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, federal judge John Roll and eighteen other people in Arizona. But while commentators debate whether the killer in that case—the mentally disturbed Jared Loughner—was inspired by the ravings of right-wing demagogues, the forgotten story of Byron Williams provides a straightforward example of the way hateful rhetoric fuels violence.
In July, Williams, a convicted bank robber, put on a suit of body armor and got in a car with a 9-mm handgun, a shotgun and a .308 caliber rifle equipped with armor-piercing bullets and set off for San Francisco. His destination was the Tides Foundation, which had been mentioned at that point in at least twenty-nine episodes of the Glenn Beck show, sometimes along with Piven. His goal, as he later told police, was to kill "people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU" in order to "start a revolution." Williams’s mother said that he had been watching TV news and was upset at "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing-agenda items." Or, as Williams himself put it, "I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn’t for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind." California Highway Patrol officers pulled Williams over for driving erratically and, after a firefight, subdued and arrested him before he could blow anyone else’s mind away.
For a responsible journalist and a responsible media outlet, such an incident would have spurred a process of intense self-scrutiny. But this is Glenn Beck and Fox, and as is evident from the campaign against Piven, nothing of the sort occurred. In the hundreds of posts about Piven on The Blaze, there is not one admonition to tone down the violent rhetoric, not one clear instance in which an editor intervened to moderate the thread. In fact, commenters seem at liberty to egg one another on: one poster pointedly noted that Piven lives in New York City and teaches at CUNY; another then linked to a website that listed Piven’s home address and phone number. "Why is this woman still alive?" asked capnjack. "Mainly because you haven’t killed her, I imagine. See, someone that really cares and has the courage of their conviction must actually DO SOMETHING," responded Diamondback. And the calls for assassination are not limited to Piven. As Civilunrestnow put it in a post that perfectly captures the tenor of right-wing eliminationist fantasy, "I say bring it. 90 million legal gun owners with over 220 million legal firearms, MOST in the hands of people who claim to be center RIGHT. I think it’s time to reduce the surplus population of leeches, lay abouts, left wing nut jobs, the main stream media, liberal politicians and MOST defense attorneys."
Of course, crazed right-wingers enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, too. But the overwhelming and transparent calls for murder on Beck’s website, among other right-wing hot spots, can’t be casually dismissed as "just talk." At one time it was all just talk for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Dr. George Tiller’s assassin, Scott Roeder, too. We were lucky that police happened to pull over Byron Williams before he reached the Tides Foundation’s door. In a sense Glenn Beck was lucky too. How long will this luck hold out?