Hands Off Mississippi, too!
Date: Wed, 2 Mar 94 13:37:52 PST
Subject: Hands Off Mississippi, too!
Subject: Camp Sister Spirit: Justice Dept. Reluctantly Enters Miss.
Interesting how the M.O. of the crackers down in Misissippi
never changes, but their targets do.
I cannot believe some black leaders who won't support
HB1443 and other civil rights bills for gays because they
think it will steal their thunder, and also because they think
that since "blacks can't choose or hide their blackness," it's
somehow more righteous to fight for black civil rights. This
is homophobia pure and simple, and it's abetted by the right.
Will it take dead queers in Misissippi before they realize they're
fighting the same enemy?
Via NY Transfer News Collective * All the News that Doesn't Fit
LESBIANS DEFEND THEIR LAND FROM THREATS
Justice Dept. reluctantly enters Mississippi
By Leslie Feinberg
Citing the threat of violence against a lesbian couple, the
Justice Department has sent two federal civil rights mediators to
Ovett, Miss. It's a success for the struggle--but certainly not
the end of it.
Wanda and Brenda Henson, with the support of allies, have been
courageously defending the 120-acre farm they bought last July
and named Camp Sister Spirit. In an interview with Workers World,
Wanda Henson described the campaign of terror that began Nov. 8.
"We found a dog shot and draped on our mailbox. There were Kotex
on the side and a nine millimeter hole in the mailbox."
When the sheriff came out to investigate, "The first thing he
asks me: 'Are there any Blacks in your organization?' I said: Yes
sir, and Jewish folks and all kinds of folks in our organization.
And three days later I bought me a shotgun. I'm a pacifist, so it
took me a while to figure out the cops weren't gonna be on our
Lots of laws were broken in the right-wing campaign of terror
aimed at driving the women from their land. Still the Justice
Department refused to get involved, using the excuse that there
is no federal law banning discrimination or violence against
lesbians and gay men.
But when the Hensons hefted rifles to back up their vows not to
leave, organized supporters into armed self-defense patrols, and
told their story to every newspaper, radio and talk show audience
that would listen, they won national recognition and support.
National lesbian and gay organizations called, faxed and wrote to
the Justice Department, pressing the Hensons' demand that it
That's what forced the Justice Department to respond. Janet Reno
acknowledged a federal law had been violated when a bomb threat
was sent to the Hensons through the mail. She sent mediators.
This is the first time the Justice Department has ever taken up a
case involving the harassment of lesbians and gay men. It is a
But this doesn't mean the struggle is over. The Justice
Department is a reluctant intervener at best. What role it plays
has yet to be seen. The first mediators to arrive praised those
who are whipping up the hate campaign against the women as
"genuinely caring," according to the New York Times Feb. 21.
ROLE OF THE POLICE
"I think the struggle has just begun," Wanda Henson stressed.
"Violence against us has escalated in the last couple of days.
That's a reaction to Reno's sending in the mediation team."
At 1:50 p.m. on Feb. 19, bursts of automatic carbine fire just
behind the house punctuated the silence. "Usually they come
shootin' at night. I fired three warning shots. They were so
close we could hear 'em talking." The two sheriff's deputies and
game wardens didn't show up until 2:46 p.m. By the time they
arrived all the bullet casings had disappeared.
Henson said they'd had a run-in with the sheriff only the day
before after they demanded he stop sending out an abusive and
unresponsive deputy to investigate the Hensons' charges. The
sheriff claimed that might hamper the ability of his department
to respond. "Well, you better figure that out before something
happens," Henson told him.
Jones County Sheriff Maurice Hooks spoke out against the Hensons
at the first right-wing "town meeting" in December and was seen
collecting money for the reactionary campaign in January. One of
the deputy sheriffs travelled to Chicago with 40 other bigots in
order to jeer the Hensons from the audience when they appeared on
a television talk show there.
In an earlier shooting incident, Henson remembered, "one deputy
come out and said it's hunting season." Henson reminded him that
it's illegal to hunt at night. "And it's not hunting season right
now," she noted.
When the Hensons turned over the bomb-threat letter to the FBI
they xeroxed a copy first. Why? "Stuff always seems to get lost.
Like when the dog got shot. The deputy picked up those two bullet
casings, but his report didn't mention them. He didn't report
that the dog was shot. At the time, he told us to just throw the
dog in the ditch. But she died for this cause. Somebody killed
her because of us, so we gave her a respectable burial on our
FIGHTING FOR OUR RIGHTS
Wanda Henson's voice thickened with anger: "To have your
government officials involved--that is government repression
against the people. This is supposed to be a democracy. No
official in this state has spoken out for us and one
representative spoke out against us. If my state doesn't do
something to protect my life then it's the federal government's
"The sheer fact of the matter is that many, many of my lesbian
sisters and gay brothers have been dying in the streets for years
and years. They don't have time to defend their civil
rights--they get killed. That brother in Tyler, Texas, they
murdered, the women and men in the Northwest who got murdered, my
brothers in New Orleans. If you link it all together you see it's
happening all over the country. The difference is we're alive;
were fighting for our civil rights."
The anti-gay bigots have used many labels for their opposition
group. Currently it is called the Ovett Community Defense Fund.
"But they are not the Ovett community," Henson stressed. "This is
the poorest state in the nation. Good people have been made
voiceless by and large. Most people around here are too poor to
afford clothes to go to church, and if you can't afford the
clothes they don't want you in their church.
"This is a Baptist-led coalition--the same people that supported
Anita Bryant. They're backed by the American Family Association
that made that anti-gay video. We've been trying to file federal
charges against this opposition hate group that is conspiring to
violate our civil rights. They held town meetings attacking us in
Ovett and at the court house. They've held fund-raisers at public
schools. There's supposed to be a separation of church and state.
"We're not included in the civil rights law. There are gaping
holes in the list of civil rights violations. Queers have no
rights. Well I got a right to a job. I got a right to build
anything I want on our land. This issue ain't muddled. It's got a
whole lot of issues in it, including religious freedom. In this
case--freedom from religion."
'SCARED AND FEARLESS'
The property owner on the adjacent land recently put up a firing
range on the edge of Camp Sister Spirit. As a result, men in
fatigues with guns are poised on the southern edge of the
property line. Henson said: "As fast as money comes in we're
using it to put up $7,000 worth of ugly fencing. And we need
money now for an electric generator. We remember during the civil
rights movement of the 1960s they came in and cut the power lines
before they murdered people. We feel as long as we can keep the
lights on with a power generator, it might enable us to get away.
And you got to have numbers on your side. That's another thing I
learned from the 1960s. The struggle for civil rights has always
been my passion. I never thought I'd use those lessons from
"I'm gonna stay here even if they kill me. And if they do I hope
that all the lesbians and gay men descend on Mississippi like
never before. I remember gays and lesbians fighting side-by-side
for civil rights in the 1960s. I'll lay down my life if that's
what it take because I'm sick of homophobia. I'm not leaving my
"It's a funny thing to think that you're scared and fearless--
all at the same time. I'm a strong Mississippian. I been here all
my life. I lived 77 miles from these woods. Bottom line: I'm a
poor woman. I don't have the money to do this kind of fight. But
we ain't afraid to speak out. That's all we got is our voice. Our
only recourse right now is the media, but at least you all been
watching us. I'll tell you I appreciate it because if eyes were
not on us, well, we might not still be here.
"When I was a kid raised in the 1960s, I clearly remember
thinking something was very wrong about the racist hatred that
was happening. That's what's gonna happen with the kids now
seeing their parents hating us. Most people who come by to
support us are very young or very old. More people of color are
supporting us and telling us to keep hanging on. An old woman
told us her house was shot up three times in 1962. 'And still we
don't really have freedom, but it's better,' she told us."
Wanda Henson's voice brimmed with emotion: "We're the cutting
edge. A friend told me it's like you're running in a race with
the baton and you're passing it from one person to the next. You
carry it for as long as you can and then you pass it on. She also
told me commitment is not a feeling, it's an action. Tell folks
to come on up here and make a stand with us."
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© 1994 Peter Langston