Editorial: Deportation Bus Tour is a new low, but voters can pump the brakes
I cover a lot of assignments in this job, including political protests and campaign events.
Today, I got a twofer: a campaign event that was greeted by an angry crowd of protesters.
Normally a story like that would make for great copy. Conflict, any conflict, gets people’s attention. They’re fun stories to write. But I wasn’t having any fun today. I felt two things I’ve never felt while covering a news event in my community: embarrassment and shame.
This protests in Clarkston and Decatur were what gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams wanted when he announced his “Deportation Bus Tour.” He’s running dead last, with 3 percent of voters saying they’ll cast their ballot for him in the Republican primary next week. I’d like to say he’s polling poorly because none of the other candidates in the race would do something as mean and stupid as driving a “deportation” bus through diverse communities.
The truth is, Williams is trying to make up ground in a race that is dominated by candidates waving guns around and trying to act tough on the issue of immigration. The way the Republican candidates talk, you’d think there are hordes of MS-13 gang members just waiting to overrun our communities like barbarians sacking Rome.
The man leading the pack to replace Gov. Nathan Deal is Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a candidate who shamelessly lied about Decatur being a sanctuary city. Now that lie has become one of the central themes of Cagle’s campaign. The only upshot to Williams’ deportation bus stunt is that it probably annoyed Cagle by kicking the Lt. Governor out of the news cycle for the day.
All the big national media and local media were there to greet the deportation bus in Clarkston, including Fox News, CNN, and Telemundo. (God bless Telemundo for having the grace to do their jobs professionally under the circumstances.) And I was there, too, standing in the rain, trying to keep the water from seeping into my cracked cell phone screen.
I interviewed a woman dressed as “The Real Donna J. Trump,” who says she is Donald Trump’s, “Worst nightmare and his wildest dream.” Somewhere in the crowd, a protester walked around with a sack of dog shit, which to the best of my knowledge was not thrown or smeared anywhere but smelled awful just the same. The chanting and sign waving began a full hour before the bus arrived. “No hate. No fear. Immigrants are welcome here.”
Then the buses arrived.
Williams’ gray deportation bus was followed by a nicer charter bus. The candidate and his campaign staff rode on the nicer bus.
Williams let the media on the charter bus two or three at a time for interviews. Unlike Cagle, who has his preferred local media at his beck and call, Williams will answer questions from anyone who asks them. Whether you agree with his answers is a different story.
I didn’t participate in the media interviews in Clarkston because I really wasn’t sure if I should even write about this nonsense. Six hundred words into this editorial, I’m still not sure.
While the bus was parked, protesters couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to see Williams’ face or wanted him to “move that bus.” Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry boarded the charter bus for a private chat and attempted to provide the candidate with facts about immigration, not that Williams or his supporters were interested in hearing any.
After Williams finished the media interviews, he stepped outside so the crowd could yell at him. Everyone was getting what they wanted, which is rare in politics. Protesters got to vent their anger at someone and that person got some more footage to use in his campaign commercials.
Following a short – and mostly civil, I should note – back and forth with the crowd in Clarkston, the Deportation Bus Tour packed up and drove to Decatur. Williams and his campaign staff were not terribly concerned that they drove their buses to unincorporated Decatur and not the dreaded sanctuary hellhole that is the city of Decatur, with its overachieving schools and $500,000 homes. A staffer explained to me that it was a logistical challenge to get two big buses in downtown Decatur, so they picked the next best thing. That happened to be a parking lot next to a Burger King on North Decatur Road.
The circus was there to greet him. Seeing that Williams had the guts to speak to the media he disagreed with (a rare trait these days), I figured he wouldn’t mind chatting with the local yokel blogger for a few minutes.
He greeted me with a big smile and a firm hand shake. I asked if I could have a seat and he told me to make myself comfortable.
Here’s a rough transcript of our interview:
Michael Williams (MW): We have three sanctuary cities that many people in Georgia didn’t even realize, so we’re going to bring attention to that, as well as a solution which is [a bill] which would allow for county sheriff’s deputies to become acting ICE agents, and once they identify someone that is in our country illegally … they can begin the deportation process.
Me: You know sanctuary cities are illegal in Georgia, right?
MW: They are technically illegal, but you know it’s not being enforced. There are several laws on our books that don’t get enforced. Illegal immigration is one of them. Just because something might be illegal, does not mean it doesn’t happen.
Me: You consider yourself a Christian, right?
Me: What do you think Jesus would say about you driving around with a bus that says, ‘load up all the illegals, we’re going to send them back to Mexico?’ Do you think Jesus would be cool with that?
(Side note: I’m a product of Catholic Sunday School and I can answer that one. No. Jesus would not be cool with it.)
MW: That’s not what the bus says. I think Jesus would accurately display and present what the bus says, which is illegal immigrants. Not all.
Me: You think Jesus would be cool with it? Just for the record? You think Jesus would be OK with it?
MW: I am not here to say …
Campaign staffer to me: Who are you with?
Me: I’m with Decaturish. I’m asking a question. It’s a legitimate question. The man said he’s a Christian.
MW: [Jesus] is more wise than I am, so whatever His judgment is, I’ll be happy with.
He later added, “If you take what is written on that bus and don’t add any commentary to it, just take it for what it is, there’s nothing hateful about it.”
Another reporter, a friend of mine, got in a few questions. During their back and forth, he made reference to a 2017 incident in Gwinnett county where teens were accused of raping a woman in front of her children. One of the suspects was an illegal immigrant, 11 Alive reported.
“We need to find those people, put them on a bus,” Williams said.
I asked him a few more questions.
Me: Can you cite some specific examples of how illegal immigration has impacted our communities in Decatur and Clarkston? Do you have any specific examples?
MW: Yeah, I just mentioned the lady in Gwinnett that got raped in front of her kids.
Me: But we’re not in Gwinnett, though. We’re in DeKalb.
MW: Yeah, but immigration affects our entire state and country. And if you have a city that is within proximity to another city that says, “We welcome everybody that is illegal,” to me that, sends the wrong message.
Me: But they didn’t say that, though. That’s the thing. They didn’t say that.
MW: Ok, we have more illegal immigrants in Georgia than we have in New Mexico and Arizona. So, they’re crossing over the border and they’re coming to Georgia for a reason. Why are they passing over Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi? Why are they passing those states to go to Georgia?
This part our exchange requires some context. In 2017, both Decatur and Clarkston implemented policies regarding cooperation with immigration agents. Both cities said they would not detain anyone without a valid warrant.
Decatur said it simply codified a long-standing policy. Also worth a mention: the Dustin Inman Society, a hardline anti-illegal immigration group, says that Decatur is not violating the state’s law banning sanctuary cities.
Williams’ comment about the number of illegal immigrants living in Georgia has a kernel of truth. According to the Pew Research Center, Georgia had 375,000 undocumented immigrants in 2014. Arizona had 325,000, New Mexico had 85,000, Texas had 1.7 million, Louisiana had 70,000, Mississippi had 25,000 and Alabama had 65,000. Florida, for the record, had 850,000 undocumented immigrants. But those statistics – the only recent ones I could find – came from 2014, well before Decatur and Clarkston took any action on the matter. The cause and effect relationship isn’t there, based on my research.
But I digress. He wasn’t really answering my question, so I kept pressing him.
Me: So, you don’t have any specific examples?
MW: I already gave you a specific example.
Me: Do you have anything in DeKalb? You’re in DeKalb. You came here to tell us how bad everything is because of illegal immigration. Do you have any examples of why things are bad?
MW: If you have people that are not following the law, by definition they are here in this country illegally and we’re going to do something about it. We have to protect and defend law and order.
At the end of the interview, Williams said the bus tour started off in Gainesville, and claimed the Hall County Sheriff’s Department told him MS-13 gang members were at the event.
I couldn’t confirm this, but given Williams’ loose allegiance to the truth, I am highly skeptical of that claim. I doubt MS-13 members have ever heard of him, if his poll numbers are any indication.
Still, Williams was polite throughout and even shook my hand after our interview. He was man enough to answer my questions and didn’t whine about it. I appreciate that, even though I disagree with just about everything he says.
As I was leaving the bus, his campaign staffer asked me if Jesus would ask that question I asked Williams about Jesus. I told him that Jesus would be smart enough not to go into journalism and that carpentry is a far more useful skill.
After the Decatur event was over, Williams’ office sent out a factually challenged press release, saying he was cancelling the rest of the day’s events.
“Senator Michael Williams concluded the first leg of his Deportation Bus Tour this afternoon after two stops in Clarkston and Decatur – two of Georgia’s most outspoken sanctuary cities – to promote his Statewide 287(g) Deportation Program and to highlight the dangers of sanctuary city policies,” the press release said. “The third stop in Athens was canceled due to ANTIFA protesters and radical liberals who blocked the bus from leaving after the Decatur stop was concluded. The protesters turned violent, shoving Williams campaign staff, spitting in supporters faces, attempting to deface the bus and other aggressive behavior. Local police called for backup and eventually cleared the protesters so the bus could leave. Do to the delayed exit, the last stop in Athens had to be canceled due to time constraints.”
People who attended the Decatur event said there were no violent interactions between the two camps and I didn’t personally see any. A DeKalb County police spokesperson said when officers arrived on the scene, they received no reports of any assaults. There were a few people blocking the bus. The spokesperson said, “Once the officers asked them to move, they moved and the bus left.”
Here’s my other favorite part of this press release:
“Earlier in the day, ANTIFA shared the Michael Williams Deportation Bus Tour details through their social media platforms to promote violence towards Williams and his campaign.”
I’m not sure why ANTIFA or anyone would need to publicize this information. The schedule was relentlessly promoted on Williams’ own social media platforms.
Fact-checking Michael Williams is just exhausting. And that’s the point. Guys like Williams and Cagle (and their mentor, President Trump) want you to be overwhelmed with their bullshit, so much so that you don’t question it and start taking things they say at face value. And why not? It worked for President Trump and it’s still working for him.
I wish I could tell you I learned something today or that I gained some valuable insight into how to combat ignorance and propaganda.
All I can tell you is, go vote. Vote in every election, including primaries. Vote for candidates who bring out the best in us, not the ones who manipulate us with fear and racist rhetoric.
Despite the passionate protests, ignorance and propaganda won today, just because Williams got a rise out of us. And ignorance and propaganda will continue to win until voters – reasonable people of all political persuasions – put a stop to it.