Samia Abdullah’s about done with the photo ops for politicians at Brannon Hill, the dilapidated condominium complex just outside of Clarkston that I wrote about a few months ago for VICE. It’s not that attention wasn’t warranted, said Abdullah, who helps organize refugees around Clarkston. The Brannon Hill community – mostly Somali, mostly poor, beset by crime in buildings held together by duct tape and the power of positive thinking – plainly needs help.
But while DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester showing up with television crews once a week might put the local Crip set off their crack grind, it doesn’t repair a roof. And free range anti-immigration zealot Phil Kent just pisses people off wherever he shows up.
Kent attributed the crime problem at Brannon Hill to “Somali gangs” in an interview with the BBC about Brannon Hill last month. In fact, the gangs are largely all-Americans, a set of the Rollin’ 100s Neighborhood Crip Gang led by crack dealers from Memphis.
After roughly 10 months of reporting, I noted that detail in the story – a detail I learned at some personal expense and verified at some small personal risk. Kent walked in a couple of weeks after VICE ran it, talked to some people and then spouted off. The truth, it seems, doesn’t raise the ire of folks looking for a reason to target refugees quite as much, though. Evoking images of Somali pirates in your back yard is much scarier.
We’re in a mood to be scared right now. Mass murderers and Donald Trump have seen to that. Trump’s call for all Muslims to be barred entry to the United States comes with some Georgia elected officials endorsing that idea right along with about two-thirds of the Republican primary electorate.
Never mind how scared Republicans might be of immigrants, the Somali community is frightened of all the attention being paid to them, said Guled Abdilahi, a software engineer and Somali community activist. “They’re calling me really late, asking me what’s going on. Text messages. Email. Calls at work about Nancy Jester, wondering about folks coming there. That’s all I can think about.”
How Brannon Hill has reacted to all of this attention might be instructive. They’re organizing, they’re breaking old habits to do so, and they may be on the edge of a real political movement in the immigrant community.
Somali culture can be insular … and stubborn about it … but that’s changing, Abdilahi said.
“We know that the Somalians and the East Africans make up the largest group in Brannon Hill,” he said. “We have trust now between groups that we didn’t have before. It’s a fragile trust, but we didn’t see it before. When we elected a board before, they were there to make decisions. But now, they’re leaders. People are following.”
To some degree, leadership is emerging in the face of an external threat. Their assumption right now is that county leaders want to find a way to level Brannon Hill and send everyone who lives there somewhere else. Given a relative dearth of low-income family housing around Clarkston – the core reason Brannon Hill has persisted despite the insane conditions – that may mean fragmenting the Somali community.
But it’s also a reflection of actual action, finally. “People are seeing things … the perception is that people have hope,” Abdilahi said. “Lots of people have been giving up. Now they’re willing to take some risks, because the leaders are willing to take risks. They’re seeing flyers. People are calling one another. There’s seeing this thing that everyone is talking about. We didn’t plan this. It’s natural. It’s activity. It’s energy. It’s hope.”
The Somali community is raising money to pay for forklifts to help cart away the mountains of illegally-dumped tires and trash – and ultimately the debris of the burned out buildings – at Brannon Hill. But the community wants all of the contributions to come from Somalis as a statement of self-reliance, said Omar Shekhey, head of the Somali American Community Center.
“All of us have a moral responsibility to help,” he said. “They haven’t done anything wrong.”
At a community meeting held by Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton last week at Memorial Drive Presbyterian, Shekhey said that they had forklifts, but wanted the county to come up with dumpsters. With dumpsters, the community would come out in force to clean up, he said.
Barnes-Sutton’s response was to say that she doesn’t know if the county can help. Their reaction to that was, in essence, we figured. You suck. We’ll try to work around you.
A church group has since volunteered dumpsters, Shekhey said.
There are needs that Brannon Hill won’t ever be able to meet from within. The legal problems are significant, and they have yet to find an attorney willing to work pro bono on their behalf, Abdullah said. The community needs some civic expertise from outside, to help develop the community develop a vision and message for itself, she added.
But it is also increasingly becoming evident to the Somali community — and the other immigrant communities around Georgia, I think — that their interests are being picked off separately by politicians eager to look good in front of the modern xenophobic right. Latinos with HB 87. West Africans with the Ebola panic. Basically every immigrant kid with the way DeKalb schools handled language entrance testing while gerrymandering all the immigrant kids into one under-resourced cluster. The Syrian refugee terrorist hysteria. Brannon Hill.
Thus, the insularity of Somali culture gives way to the political need to connect to others for mutual support.
A rally and march are scheduled for Saturday morning at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church. Immigrant groups from outside of the Somali community and from outside of Clarkson are expected to attend, Abdullah said.
“This is all very new to us, working to a vision and organizing, is new to us,” Abdullah said. “The Somali community is saying that you’re exposing our bad linen at a very bad time, when there is a lot of hate. We’re going to be used in the middle as a fighting weapon between other people. This is more of a political organizing to push against oppression, the social ills like the lack of safety, crime and outside drug dealers. … This is not to show that we’re aggressive, but that we’re assertive.”
I would call this counter-reactionary, but I’d have Occupy flashbacks. Suffice it to say that I’m intensely curious if the anti-immigrant zeal of the right may have unintended consequences, like developing real leadership among those who have been attacked. Adversity breeds valor, after all. The political left here have long wondered what it might take for Georgia’s growing but politically-disconnected immigrant communities to engage. Perhaps this is it.