Tlaib not cowed by 'hateful' threats, behavior

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, raises her fist in solidarity as she speaks at the Women's March in Michigan inside thee Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit last week.

Washington — The death threats started on U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib's first day of orientation in Congress and haven't stopped. 

Her office said the Detroit Democrat received around 60 threats in the two weeks following her swearing-in this month.

That same day, she made national headlines after issuing a profane cry at a Washington party to "impeach the mother (expletive)," referring to President Donald Trump. 

One of the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House, Tlaib also has been the target of anti-Muslim slurs on social media, false internet articles, hoax memes and fake Twitter accounts posing as the freshman lawmaker. 

In the past week, colleagues reprimanded a Florida commissioner for saying on Facebook that Tlaib could "become a martyr and blow up Capitol Hill." 

"My mere existence here is causing people to say some very hateful and racist comments," said Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress. 

The 42-year-old former environmental justice lawyer has renounced the attacks as hate speech that "absolutely has no place in our politics." Tlaib has also suggested Trump's divisive rhetoric is at least in part responsible for threats to harm her.

She ran for office because "people like us deserve a seat at the table." That seat has now propelled Tlaib to a national profile and prompted messages of both support and condemnation. Her mission remains unchanged.

"Girls, we have a new Congress. We not only look differently, but we speak differently," Tlaib told the Women's March in Detroit on Jan. 19, promising to fight for women on the House floor, in the courts and in the streets. 

"They will try to shush us. They will try to tell us to be quiet, or this is just not how we're supposed to do things here. ... You all are fueling us to speak louder and very clearly. And the whole nation knows exactly how I feel." 

Threats 'across the spectrum'

Tlaib had a few family members serving as her security detail at the march inside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. She said she feels safer at home in Michigan's 13th District than at other events.

"Here, I feel like my whole community protects me. I always worry about my staff and my family more than I worry about myself," Tlaib said in an interview. 

"But it’s unprecedented, not only myself, but the other women — the new members in Congress — to deal with threats all of us have received. It shows how much violence is being promoted from the White House.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) speaks into a bullhorn during a rally of furloughed workers at the Patrick V McNamara Federal Building in downtown Detroit on Friday, January 18, 2019.  The protestors demanded an end to the partial government shutdown.

Tlaib isn't the only member of Michigan's congressional delegation to receive death threats.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider of the Eastern District of Michigan said threats against elected officials happen "across the spectrum, across the country." 

"We take these, all of them, very seriously. The FBI is specially assigned to be on alert for these. It’s not a joking matter, and we’re going to follow up on all of them," Schneider said. 

"People think that they can be anonymous whether they use email or Snapchat or Facebook. That’s really not the case. Law enforcement has tools to identify that, and we’ve done that on several occasions — whether they’re threats to members of Congress or threats to our schools."

The House sergeant at arms has said threatening incidents and communications against House members more than doubled from 902 in 2016 to more than 2,000 in 2017, according to news reports.

A Southgate man, Dennis Downey, awaits sentencing after pleading guilty last year to one count of communicating a threat to injure another after he phoned the Washington office of U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, saying he would kill "all of you." 

Court records say law enforcement traced the call and arrested Downey, who admitted to placing it.

Dingell said it was among a number of threats she has received. 

It's unclear whether charges have been brought yet in relation to the threats against Tlaib. Spokesman Denzel McCampbell said Tlaib's office is working with all levels of law enforcement to ensure the threats against her are taken seriously.

'It's a sensitive time'

"I can empathize. We get death threats regularly," said U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, a Muslim and former police officer who has served in Congress since 2009. 

Carson represents the Indianapolis area and has a security detail from the local sheriff's department when he does events in his district, he said. Last year, officials secured a restraining order against an individual who threatened one of Carson's staffers, he said. 

U.S. Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana

"It’s a sensitive time. Folks are upset. They are looking for a boogeyman or woman to place their blame on, and you look at a woman like Rashida who makes folks uncomfortable. She represents the ‘changing of America,’ as it were," Carson said.

"You have people who are still sexist, and Islamaphobes who can’t stand to see women in power, women in authority. To be a woman and a Muslim, that doubles the offense for them and doubles the suspicion. She represents all that they’re afraid of."

National coverage of Tlaib's call to impeach Trump this month drew a flurry of angry calls to the 13th District Democratic Party — at least 100 over 10 days from area codes around the country, said Jonathan Kinloch, the party chairman for the district.   

"What is wrong with your people in Michigan?" one caller groused in a voicemail. "Rag heads like that shouldn't be in Congress." 

Many callers insulted Muslims and Palestinians, engaged in name-calling and suggested Tlaib be removed from office. The episode and the threats to Tlaib illustrate how polarized the country has become, Kinloch said.

"The threshold has been lowered in terms of tolerance and acceptability for the vile discourse taking place," Kinloch said. "It's just unfortunate. Trump's normalizing it, and those who choose to get into the squalor with him." 

Memories of Congress shooting

Republican Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland said he communicated to Tlaib that he "in no way" agreed with her remarks about impeaching Trump, urging decorum in Congress and respect for the office of the president.

"I'm not saying in any way she deserves that kind of treatment, even though her comments were very offensive. It's two separate things," Moolenaar said of the threats against her. 

"It's unacceptable for her to be treated that way, and I'm sorry she's experiencing that."

Moolenaar, who like Tlaib is a former state lawmaker, said nothing ever justifies threats or intimidation of a public servant. "That's terrible," he said. 

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland

Moolenaar was with other GOP lawmakers practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game in June 2017 when a gunman opened fire, wounding four people including Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Oakland County native Matt Mika

Gunman James Hodgkinson died following a shootout with police. He was later identified as a Bernie Sanders supporter who once posted on Facebook that "Republicans are the Taliban of the USA."

"Having been in a situation where people on the field that day were targeted because of their political views, that's a very serious problem," Moolenaar said. "Anyone who threatens the livelihood or lives of people deserves consequences for that."

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.