Alabama justice groups ask that Secretary of State John Merrill be held accountable for social media activity

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Project Say Something Founder Camille Bennett said tweets that John Merrill retweeted were racially insensitive and promoted violence.

Bennett said, while Merrill didn’t tweet these himself, retweeting them means he agrees with the message of the author. That’s what led more than twenty social justice groups and activists to send him an open letter stating their disapproval.

“We understood how we were going to be affected by tweets like that so we found it necessary to come together quickly and come up with a statement and work together to make sure we push it out to the public,” Bennett said.

Bennett called Merrill’s actions, with him being the secretary of state, irresponsible.

“It was not only one-sided, but it was really irresponsible,” Bennet said. “If you’re going to post something like that, talking about a war on whites, you really need to show the entire picture.”

Merrill responded to the criticism saying he was using his personal account.

“The people that have a concern about my social media engagement or activity should not follow me on social media if they have a concern about that,” Merrill said. “If they want to follow the Office of the Secretary of State, they’re certainly welcome to do that.”

Merrill said his personal account reflects his views and his individual opinions.

The social justice groups have scheduled a press conference on the steps of the state capitol for November 24 at noon. In the letter, they invited Secretary Merrill in hopes he will address his social media use.

News 19 asked Merrill if he would attend that press conference; he said anyone who would like to meet with him, one at a time, can schedule an appointment because his schedule is open on the 24th.

See below for the full letter to Merrill but be advised, some readers may find the quoted language offensive:

Dear Mr. Merrill,

The undersigned are representatives of a coalition of organizations committed to confronting racial injustice in Alabama. As community voices and trusted leaders, we believe that it is imperative to hold elected officials accountable for public behavior that reflects poorly on the office and constituents they have been entrusted to serve.

Recent Twitter Activity

Recently, you retweeted a post that highlights a “war on whites”. The tweet was a response to a video posted by Andy Ngo depicting a hooded Black man punching a seemingly defenseless white man in the head while he was turned in the opposite direction (effectively making this a ‘sucker punch’). While the clip posted by Andy Ngo was around fifteen seconds long (with five seconds of action, and starting less than a second prior to the punch); the original video was around one minute and thirty seconds long. In the full video, the seemingly defenseless white man was seen indiscriminately physically assaulting numerous people (including young women), prior to being punched and put down himself. 

This added context does nothing to excuse the actions of the hooded man who landed the final blow, but highlights the absurdity and the recklessness of the comment you agreed with enough to share via retweet with your 8,792 followers. The full video was posted on Twitter shortly after, one user responded to it by saying: “a sucker punch from behind is still a sucker punch from behind”, a sentiment you seemingly agreed with – or at least liked enough to share with your followers again. Apparently, you saw the video in its entirety and instead of retracting the abhorrent and wildly irresponsible post you initially shared without context, you chose to double down. 

To add insult to injury, there was another response to the edited video that you seemingly agreed with – or at least liked enough to share with your followers, a tweet that stated: “when patriots decide to fight back it’s going to be ugly”. It goes without saying, that this rhetoric coming from an elected official is unacceptable and irresponsible at best; immature and racist at worst. In Alabama, we have seen non-stop peaceful protests everyday since the gruesome murder of George Floyd went viral in late May of this year. Many of our protestors have been violently threatened by the very base your recent retweets invigorate and embolden. As an elected official, we expect you to know better, to do better, and to simply be better.

The Historical Context Surrounding Dog Whistles

Mr. Merrill, your retweets can aptly be described as dog whistles. A “dog whistle” is a political expression used to communicate to a specific base, exclusively, without anyone outside of said base understanding the implications of the expression. In 2020 (more accurately, post 2008) however, the dog whistle has evolved, because it’s not about masking the meaning of the expression anymore, it’s really about communicating a certain set of implications without committing to the rigidity and frankness of plain language, thus absolving the dog whistler of any responsibility. 

The idea of a “war on whites” can be traced back to the Civil War, back when there were no societal standards in place to incentivize the illusion of ambiguity or intent of an expression. Thus the myth of a post Civil War “servile insurrection”, i.e. an assault on innocent white civilians by newly freed slaves, in the name of racial retribution, was born. In a speech to his men after a Union General refused to return freed Black slaves to their southern masters General James Longstreet says, 

“Already has the hatred of one of their great leaders attempted to make the negro your equal by declaring his freedom. They care not for the blood of the babed, nor the carnage of innocent women, which servile insurrection thus stirred up may bring upon their heads.”

Needless to say, there is nothing subtle about this language. The message is clear: war on whites. The concept of a “war on whites” was uttered into existence for one reason: to plant the seed of violent confrontation into the minds of white men.  This concept was used solely to incentivize white men to take up arms against the newly freed slaves. The language in Longstreet’s message was deliberate and intentional; evoking the images of innocent women and babies as victims of this looming encroachment, and painting Blackness itself as a weapon. To be clear, the real threat that Longstreet sought to eradicate was freedom and equity for Black people. 

To bring this “war on whites” rhetoric into a more modern context, let us first revisit the infamous Lee Atwater quote, detailing the pragmatic importance of dog whistling in political speech. Atwater, a former GOP campaign advisor once stated: 

You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Ni****, ni****, ni****.” By 1968 you can’t say “ni****” –that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Ni****, ni****”. 

In 2020, dog whistling to a base of individuals who do not understand the nuances of the current state of civil unrest in the United States is as simple as tweeting these four words: “A war on whites” in response to an edited video depicting an isolated incident of violence on camera. 

Your retweet closely resembles General Longstreet’s: “white men, arm yourselves and prepare to deal with the looming encroachment of these violent Blacks, because we are all in the crosshairs”. You also retweeted a complimentary dog whistle that warned of “patriots fighting back”, the statement is supplementary because it presupposes a dominant monopoly on the concept of “Patriotism” by the Right side of the political spectrum. Both of these sentiments are wildly inappropriate and insensitive for a sitting Secretary of State to share, endorse and irrationally defend. 

The incident you endorsed and the unhinged dog whistle responses, took place in Washington D.C., at the Million MAGA March,  an event approximately eight hundred and thirty-nine miles away from Alabama. This begs the question, what is happening in Alabama? If your primary focus is to illuminate a so-called “war on whites” we ask, are whites victims of inequity, systemic racism and war crimes in AL? 

According to 2010 census data, despite only making up twenty-six percent of the Alabama population, Blacks account for over fifty-four percent of the prison population. Too often people look at these numbers and assume it must be a cultural issue for Black people (biological essentialism/race realism doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned), but sociology points to another issue: The socio-economic position of Blacks in America (in this case Alabama). As an elected official in this state, wouldn’t it be more productive and ethically pressing to address these conditions, as opposed to fueling the myth of a ‘war on whites’?  

Covid-19 has claimed the lives of over forty-six thousand Black people, a staggering number, Blacks only make up roughly 14% of the US population. Covid-19 cases are surging in Alabama, and the Black community will continue to die disproportionately. Is your fear of a ‘war on whites’ (based on a one sided account of an incident that took place in Washington D.C) founded in reality? 

Conclusion

Mr. Merrill this letter is not an attack, it is a mirror. We offer a perspective that you either chose not to consider, or deemed insignificant enough to disregard. We hope to highlight the danger of the biased rhetoric you inappropriately shared with your followers. 

The State of Alabama deserves to see you answer for your irresponsibility. Please join us in a press conference Tuesday 11/24/2020 at noon on the steps of the State capital. 

Best regards, 

Project Say Something – Florence, AL

Reclaiming Our Time – Albertville, AL

Madison County Chapter SCLC – President Gregory Jerome Bentley – Huntsville, AL

Laura Casey Democratic candidate, President of the Alabama Public Service Commission – Birmingham, AL

Alabama Justice Initiative – Birmingham, AL

Angela Curry, Executive Director, United Women of Color – Huntsville, AL

Black Lives Matter – Birmingham, AL

Faith & Works – Birmingham, AL

Equality Shoals – Florence, AL

Bishop Daniel J Richardson – Huntsville, AL

Yolanda Sales, Huntsville, AL Community Activist

BLM Huntsville – Keith Young

M.O.M. Mothers of Many – Selma, AL

People’s New Black Panther Party

Alabama Chairwoman – Sherette Spicer 

Beyond the Women’s March – Florence, AL

Tennessee Valley Progressive Alliance – Huntsville, AL

Greater Huntsville Interdenominational Ministerial Fellowship (GHIMF) 

Indivisible Northwest Alabama

Black Lives Matter Montgomery, AL – Karen Jones