Census worker found hanged in Kentucky; see who's politicizing it
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[UPDATE: Police say it was a suicide]
On September 12, part-time Census Bureau worker Bill Sparkman was found hanged in rural Kentucky with the word "Fed" "scrawled" (per the AP) on his chest. The story was only released yesterday and the details aren't known, but that hasn't stopped several (listed below) from trying to blame right-wing media figures and politicians (such as Glenn Beck and Rep. Michelle Bachmann) for creating an environment that led to the tragedy, despite there being no evidence of that.
This could have been a suicide, or the "Fed" note could be a red herring to disguise a non-political crime, or other explanations. However, the most likely is that he stumbled upon some hidden drug operation; he was found in the Daniel Boone National Forest which is apparently a haven for marijuana production (link) and that's currently being harvested. There may also be meth (link) and, of course, moonshine being produced. Whether he was killed at the spot where his body was found or not, the southeastern Kentucky area has a long history of broad "anti-government" sentiment relating to moonshining and the like; they don't need a congresswoman from Minnesota to awaken opposition to the federal government.
* Devlin Barrett of the Associated Press appeared on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show yesterday and said (huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/24/census-worker-death-very_n_298433.html) "Obviously the details -- the few details we know at this point are very disturbing... and could feed a larger political argument if this ends up being the result of anti-government sentiment. But they don't know that for absolute certain yet. And part of the investigators' job is to rule out any other explanation for what happened... I don't think federal law enforcement would still be involved a week and a half after the body was found if there wasn't still that very serious concern [of some political motivation]... And they don't have all the answers yet. And some of the things they know they're not going to tell us because they're concerned that there may be perpetrators out there that they would very much like to catch. But ... part of the process we're in now is proving all the other alternate explanations."
* Little Green Footballs (littlegreenfootballs.com/article/
34740_Report-_Census_Worker_Found_Hanged_with_Fed_Scrawled_on_Body): There’s not enough information yet to say for sure what was behind this killing, so let’s not jump to conclusions. But the description of the circumstances and the timing (around the time of the Washington DC tea party) raises a strong suspicion that anti-government sentiment may have been the motivation... [later in a comment:] The more I think about it, the more I doubt that this was a simple drug-related killing. It's not their style at all. They would just take the body and bury it in some backwoods area where it would never be found, or sink it in a lake, or something similar. It makes no sense to stage what seems like a political statement, unless there was a political motive.
* The AP's Barrett and others (Jeffrey McMurray, Roger Alford, Hope Yen, and Dylan Lovan) authored the main AP report here. They don't discuss a possible drug connection, instead focusing on tying this to contemporary politcal matters. The second paragraph says "the FBI is investigating whether he was a victim of anti-government sentiment"; what exactly they said isn't revealed and they could have meant long-standing opposition to "revenooers" rather than something stirred up recently. Then:
Appalachia scholar Roy Silver, a New York City native now living in Harlan County, Ky., said he doesn't sense an outpouring of anti-government sentiment in the region as has been exhibited in town hall meetings in other parts of the country.
"I don't think distrust of government is any more or less here than anywhere else in the country," said Silver, a sociology professor at Southeast Community College.
The most deadly attack on federal workers came in 1995 when the federal building in Oklahoma City was devastated by a truck bomb, killing 168 and injuring more than 680. Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the bombing, carried literature by modern, ultra-right-wing anti-government authors.
As if that wasn't enough:
"Even as illustrated in town hall meetings today, there is a distinct hostility in a large segment of the population toward people who work for their government," [Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility] said.
* Hope Yen of the AP offers "Census workers trained to deal with hostile people" (link): As part of routine training, Census employees are advised to be on the lookout for potentially dangerous situations and to avoid getting "emotionally involved" if survey respondents begin to express hatred toward the government. While just a backgrounder, it gives the false impression that such "hatred" was the motivation.
* Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic says (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/09/hanging-from-a-tree-in-kentucky.html): "From this profile of the cancer survivor and volunteer, it appears suicide is unlikely. We'll find out. But at some point, unhinged hostility to the federal government, whipped up by the Becks, can become violence. That's what Pelosi was worried about. The Dish will keep its eyes on this story."
* Kevin Poulsen of Wired Magazine offers "Online Conspiracy Theories Latch Onto Census GPS Units" (wired.com/threatlevel/2009/09/census): "The hanging death of a Kentucky census worker is likely to raise tensions among counters in the 2010 census, who have already been the focus of emotionally-charged online rhetoric this year because they use GPS..." He then references anti-Census comments left at sites like InfoWars and RightSoup.com. (UPDATE: He or someone else at Wired didn't approve a comment I left linking to this list and congratulating him on being added to it.)
* Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor offers "Grisly hanging of Census worker: an antigovernment act? /FBI is investigating worker's death in Kentucky. Is crime-scene reference to 'fed' a clue or a feint?" (csmonitor.com/2009/0924/p02s25-usgn.html). It's more balanced than would be expected from the source; it only deserves to be in this list to a small extent. While it raises the possibility of "disaffection and anger with Washington may be morphing into extremism, even domestic terrorism, and may be directed at government representatives" and references recent race-baiting by Nancy Pelosi and Jimmy Carter, it also notes that Sparkman is white. And, it raises the possibility that "Fed" is a red herring, and discusses how "More than 40 drug dealers have been arrested in the past month in the area where Sparkman was working."
* Allison Kilkenney of the HuffPost says, among many other things (huffingtonpost.com/allison-kilkenny/discussion-of-dead-census_b_298534.html): "Federal" means "Big Government," and the word has taken on a derogatory meaning in right-wing circles where fear and paranoia reign supreme. I agree with Johnson that this seems like an apparent homicide, but it's not "nothing else." By utilizing the branding "Fed," the killers were clearly trying to make a political statement, namely "Obama: Stay Out."
* Alex Koppelman of Salon says (salon.com/politics/war_room/2009/09/23/census): "There are always people who have some sort of paranoia about the federal government and the census, but things might be worse this time around. There's been a lot of talk on the right about the connection (always very tenuous, and now severed) between the census and ACORN, a group that's been conservatives' favorite bogeyman of late. And Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has been spreading her own fears about the census, at one point even suggesting a link between the census and Japanese internment during World War II -- a frightening parallel for modern conspiracy theorists who fear that the government is setting up similar camps for them now."
* Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly references the previous and says (washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_09/020091.php): "There are, obviously, far more questions than answers, and it's best not to jump to any conclusions... But as Alex Koppelman noted, if these early reports are accurate, they raise the prospect of what may have been a politically-motivated slaying."
* Digby says among other things (digbysblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/feds-by-digby-its-good-thing-that-none.html): "It's a good thing that none of this violent anti-government rhetoric is dangerous in any way. But that doesn't change the fact that census workers are the enemies of freedom:
Obviously, it's possible that this man's killer had something against him other than his profession. Perhaps he was an informant or something. Maybe it's a cover up or something else entirely. I'm sure we'll soon find out... But if he was killed for being a federal census worker, it certainly wouldn't be the first time that "Feds" have been targeted. And we all know that the census is an ACORN plot and the Van Jones commies in the government are trying to destroy the American way of life. Michelle Bachman told us so. You can't expect Real Americans to just sit back and let that happen."
* Pam Spaulding says (pamshouseblend.com/diary/13153/kentucky-census-worker-hanged-with-fed-scrawled-on-chest-fbi-investigating): "Lord have mercy, if this turns out to be some backwoods, irate, homicidal teabagger, the already close-to-untethered 24% of right-wing crazies will up the violence ante." She also includes a disgusting illustration from "Jesus' General" of someone hanging with FED written on them surrounded by the names of rightwingers.
* Andrew Belonsky of Gawker says among other things (gawker.com/5366498/census-workers-death-the-next-generation-of-lynching): 'We know that the levels of right-wing vitriol have reached psychotic new heights. But could they really be behind the "apparent homicide" of a Kentucky census worker, William Sparkman? Should we be calling this, as some are, a "lynching?" ...On September 12, the same day as those wacky protests, Sparkman was found hanging from a tree with the word "fed" carved into his chest. '
* Jay Barmann of SFist says (sfist.com/2009/09/24/census_taker_found_hanged_with_fed.php): 'The funniest part about this completely sick and unfunny story? The quote from the Associated Press piece on the crime that says, "the FBI is investigating whether he was a victim of anti-government sentiment." You think? This appears to be a story not only about backwoods crazies, but also about our ailing economy and under-funded educational system (Bill Sparkman, the victim, was a 51-year-old substitute teacher who was supplementing his income with the census work), and about the virulent emotions that exist "out there" due to the health care debate and the fact that we have a liberal black President. Regardless of what turns out to be the true motive for the crime, you couldn't pay us enough to roam the countryside and knock on strange doors asking questions.'
* Dan Amira of New York Magazine offers "Has Nancy Pelosi’s Fear of Political Violence Been Realized?" (nymag.com/daily/intel/2009/09/has_nancy_pelosis_fear_of_poli_1.html): Though it's too early to conclude that the man, 51-year-old Bill Sparkman, was targeted in an act of anti-government violence, that is an angle that authorities are currently looking into. And if that turns out to be the case, it wouldn't be all that surprising, considering the sheer volume of vitriol directed at the federal government and the Obama administration these days by conservative media personalities, websites, and even members of Congress. [mentions Bachmann's comments against Census]... In addition to this specific case of census-related fearmongering, you can add in the conspiracy theories about FEMA internment camps, long a mainstay of the Internet but recently stoked anew by the likes of conservative website World Net Daily and radio host Michael Savage. Then throw in everyone comparing Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and health-care reform to Hitler and Nazi Germany — like Rush Limbaugh, to take but one example. And death panels, and socialism, and birth certificates, and "trampling on the Constitution." It's this toxic stew of fear and anger and paranoia that Nancy Pelosi recently worried could compel someone to lash out.
* Brad Friedman mentions (bradblog.com/?p=7432) an election fraud scandal in the county and the drug trade there and says "there is not yet definitive evidence that the hanging was tied to the Bachman/Beck movement". However, he later says: 'With all of that in mind, however, it's admittedly damned difficult not to look back at the kind of wildly-irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric being slung casually across the airwaves to millions of viewers and listeners every day by folks like Bachman, Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, and all the rest, without pondering questions such as: "What the hell are these people thinking?" and "Do they not realize that people are actually out there paying attention to what they have to say?"' He also includes the same disreputable graphic as Spaulding.
* Faiz Shakir of ThinkProgress offers "Flashback: Bachmann Spread Fears Of Scary Stalking Census Workers" (thinkprogress.org/2009/09/25/bill-sparkman-hate-crime): "Regardless of what the motive for the killing may have been, why would a murderer(s) take such pains to so blatantly convey anger, fear, and vitriol towards a Census employee? Perhaps because some on the right have created an impression that Census employees are terrifying." He goes on to discussion past statements from Beck, Bachmann, and Neal Boortz.
* Benen returns (washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_09/020125.php) with: "As was the case earlier in the week, it's still worth emphasizing that this is an open investigation and additional information is needed before reaching any conclusions... [excerpts Shakir's post above]... The record on that front is clear -- Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Glenn Beck, and Neal Boortz have invested considerable energy in trying to convince confused, right-wing activists that the Census and those who work for the Census Bureau are not to be trusted, and may even be dangerous."
* Josh Glasstetter of People for the American Way's blog writes (rightwingwatch.org/content/right-wing-census-paranoia-video): "There are many unanswered questions about the tragic hanging death of Bill Sparkman, a US Census Bureau employee, in rural Kentucky. But one thing is clear. Right-Wing leaders like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and media outlets like Fox News have whipped up hysteria and paranoia over the 2010 Census. Mr. Sparkman's untimely demise may or may not have been the doing of an anti-government fanatic, but it’s clear that the Right is creating an environment that is hostile to Census workers and the Constitutionally-mandated Census." He then mentions Beck and Bachmann and includes the PFAW video "Right-Wing Census Paranoia: Bachmann, Beck, Fox News, and More" (link).
* Larisa Alexandrovna writes (atlargely.com/atlargely/2009/09/census-worker-murder-what-is-wrong-with-local-le.html): "I think that it is also fair to question the role Rep. Michelle Bachmann (the psychotic, drooling, knuckle-dragger, ill-informed conspiracy theorist, birther and hater masquerading as a member of Congress) jihad against the Census Bureau had something to do with it. "
* "Ellen" of News Hounds links to the PFAW post and video and says (newshounds.us/2009/09/26/
fox_news_fear_mongering_has_whipped_up_paranoia_and_hysteria_over_2010_census.php): Fox News doesn't seem interested in even considering whether it may have played a role in inciting this kind of violence. Its hate and fear mongering continue unabated. As Josh wrote, the anti-government sentiment "could boil over at any moment."
* Andrew Sullivan returns (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/09/no-suicide.html): I suppose, that anger at the feds in general could make a drug dealer murder a census worker. But the most worrying possibility - that this is Southern populist terrorism, whipped up by the GOP and its Fox and talk radio cohorts - remains real. We'll see.
* The sleazy Dave Weigel says (washingtonindependent.com/61037/
bachmann-in-st-louis-defund-the-left-beware-one-world-currency): After the speech [at the How to Take Back America Conference in St. Louis, Rep. Michelle Bachmann] had only a few minutes to sign autographs and collect a stack of CDs and books from fans who’d followed her into the lobby. I caught up to her as she headed outside and asked if she had any response to the murder of a Kentucky census worker, having noticed that the Census, a constant target for Bachmann, did not figure into her speech. Bachmann recoiled a little at the question and turned to enter her limo. “Thank you so much!” she said.
* UCLA professor Mark Kleiman says (samefacts.com/2009/09/
watching-conservatives/terrorism-in-kentucky): "I can’t think of an interpretation of taping the victim’s Census ID to the body other than as a political statement; if the man had just stumbled across a meth lab, he might have been killed, but hardly in such a dramatic fashion. Unless and until contrary facts emerge, I’m prepared to call this a terrorist incident, and to say that Glenn Beck very likely has Bill Sparkman’s blood on his tongue and lips."
* 9/26 2pm: Amanda Terkel of ThinkProgress offers "Bachmann dodges question about murdered Census worker" (thinkprogress.org/2009/09/26/bachmann-census-worker), linking to Weigel's article and saying, "Over the summer, Bachmann waged a high-profile, wildly-dishonest campaign against the Census, going so far as to claim that the data collected had been used to round up and intern Japanese-Americans in the 1940s."
* This report (heraldscotland.com/news/world-news/
us-official-murdered-in-kentucky-land-of-meth-and-moonshine-1.922348) from a Scottish paper might be a good reference point for MSM treatment of this issue: "The FBI is investigating whether a wave of intense anti-government sentiment sweeping America has claimed its first victim... [the case] is fuelling speculation he was killed simply because he worked for the federal government – now the target of a wave of hate from extreme right-wingers... The gruesome find has triggered national interest because it comes at a politically sensitive time, not long after thousands of angry conservatives marched on Washington to protest at government intervention in the economy, public healthcare and the prospect of higher taxes..."
* 9/27 9am: Alan Colmes links to Weigel's report, saying (alan.com/2009/09/27/michele-bachmann-avoids-question-about-dead-census-worker): "Bachmann previously claimed that the census was used in the 1940’s for the internment of Japanese, contrary to its privacy policies, and implies that the Obama administration would similarly misuse census information."
* 9/27 12pm: Rachel Weiner of the HuffPost does likewise, saying (huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/27/bachmann-refuses-to-answe_n_301238.html): "Bachmann, who has proclaimed that she will not fill out her Census forms and suggested that the survey could lead to internment camps, did not bring up the issue at the conservative How to Take Back America Conference in St. Louis." Why anyone would expect her to bring up the issue isn't clear.
More to follow...
2/8/12 UPDATE: At the time, I forgot to link to this: in November 2009, the police said this was a suicide.