Imagine the unimaginable: you come to the office one day to learn that a misguided person with a lot of guns was on his way to shoot you and your colleagues. The Oakland Police Department called to tell us that on July 18, 2010, following a shootout with the California Highway Patrol, law enforcement officials arrested an assailant who had targeted Tides Foundation and the ACLU for violence. We were shocked to learn about this alarming incident. The work we do is all about making the world a better place, so why on earth would someone want to hurt us?
Our staff gathered to address anxieties, safety measures, and public statements; we hired top-notch security and got back to work. Eventually, the outpouring of concern and news attention subsided and we waited to learn more about why the shooter named Byron Williams had targeted us.
We found the answer from recent interviews conducted with Williams in jail – he wanted to kill 11 people at Tides in retaliation for the 11 who died in the tragedy on the BP oil rig explosion. Once again, we were shocked. Although, our name is Tides, we had nothing to do with causing the BP spill.
In reality, Tides is a nonprofit that supports projects, grantees and programs that are core to our country’s nonprofit infrastructure and social service delivery. We support a Veterans re-entry program, the improvement of community clinics in California, people in Africa receiving treatment for HIV, arts programs for inner city youth, adolescent nutrition, ending violence against women, civic participation to make our democracy work, and much more.
So why are we a target? The conspiracy theory that the shooter believes about Tides was encouraged and falsely validated by Glenn Beck. Tides has been highlighted on Fox News’ Glenn Beck show along with many others as part of his conspiratorial "tree of connections" of people working for green jobs, economic justice, climate change, and health care reform. We see Beck's rhetoric as a broad-ranging attack on the entire progressive community.
What Beck appears to have incited was an act of violence on 12 CHP officers (two of them were injured) and an intended attack on our staff of 125. We are a group of people who are like any others in the U.S. who work in an office taking care of administrative details. Our work isn't very sexy – we are not activists on the front lines – we actually provide the back-end operational work that helps run nonprofit projects, so that those projects can focus on the frontline work. We spend our days working on computers, processing invoices, taking care of payroll, and making sure that grants from our donor-clients reach nonprofits around the globe.
Byron Williams is now in jail and not likely to be leaving anytime soon. Here's a paragraph from Reason.com on Williams' background: "an extensive criminal career marked by convictions for assault, property destruction, hit and run, and drunken driving." At the time of the shootout, the would-be killer was on parole for bank robbery. ... Williams' mother: "This economy, the way that it is, if people are going to hire somebody, they probably won't hire an ex-felon. If it was boom times, things would have been different." It's not clear from these stories when Williams was radicalized or how it happened. But it's clear that he was already alienated, violent, and in a situation where he didn't have much to lose.
Are our society and culture fostering more disenfranchised people like this? If we had a greater focus on civility and constructive places to voice our opinions would things be different? How can we agree to disagree?
Drummond Pike, CEO and Founder of Tides said, "The idea that an individual would look at the kinds of activities Tides funds – schools, alumnae associations, clinics - and decide that he needed to resort to that kind of violence is mind boggling. Also, the idea that I or any of my colleagues would come to harm is just horrible. I think that an individual such as this disturbed gunman needs to be judged as an individual and not part of any conspiracy. That said, I think we can all agree that the super heated right wing rhetoric has a corrosive effect on our ability to simply talk to one another and engage in respectful discourse. I think that is something that we have lost here in America and I am committed to bringing back that spirit to the public dialogue."
Acrimonious political discourse is on the rise and is not a hallmark of a healthy democracy. False information is widely available and it is easy to take opinion as fact. Politicians, the media, and people in positions of power have a responsibility to be thoughtful and receptive and to listen to all sides of an issue. Condemning people or organizations as evil does not solve the problem. We need to focus on solutions, exercise restraint, take responsibility, and not promote a fervor that can spur extremists to violent behavior.
Tides rejects any form of intolerance and calls for a resurgence of civility for all citizens, government and the media. The issues that concern all Americans – the economy, unemployment, education – are shared. We may choose different tactics or policies to remedy these issues and we may hold conflicting ideas, but we all want a secure financial future for ourselves and our children and we want to live in peace and freedom. Civil discourse helps Americans find common ground, enhances understanding among those who may disagree about public matters, and upholds freedom of speech with a respect for diversity and divergent views.
At Tides, we think it is critical to focus on ending the culture of intolerance and embrace dialogue among those with differing views. Join us. We have started The Civil Discourse Fund which actively researches and funds organizations that help Americans find common ground and enhance understanding among those who may disagree about public matters. Donate now.