Last December, while I was researching my series about the Somali refugees that have moved to Shelbyville over the past few years, I received an unsolicited call from an enraged employee at the Tyson Foods plant.
"THEY'RE TAKING AWAY LABOR DAY!!!" she screamed."They're giving the Somalis some day at the end of their Ramadan," the lady told me. "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT! THIS IS AMERICA!"
I told her that it was ironic she should call about the refugees, since I was right in the middle of looking into the topic.
But her idea of "what I should do about it" was quite different than what I was working on. The woman then began to go on at length about her experiences working at the poultry processing facility with the Somalis, commenting on the refugee's alleged lack of hygiene, manners and respect for their fellow workers.
However, her call was also so punctuated with such a variety of ugly observations and opinions that many would consider racist, I dismissed the story as just a workplace rumor. There was no evidence this was taking place.
But I didn't forget it. If anything, the woman's anger and mindset came to mirror many of the responses and comments we received from local citizens when the Times-Gazette published the Somali series several weeks later.
Since we ran the series, I've been hearing more and more rumbles of discontent in reference to the refugees from members of the Bedford County community. But the stories were also well received and praised, for which I am quite grateful and deeply honored.
Fast forward to a little over a week ago: I got a call stating that "one of your Somalians" had run afoul of the law in Franklin County.
As it turned out, it wasn't "one of ours," but a gentleman from Atlanta who allegedly committed a series of crimes south of here after reportedly stealing a vehicle from the location of the Muslim mosque in Shelbyville.
After obtaining three police reports from two different agencies and speaking to the lead investigator, we published the story. As I expected, it produced the same type of reaction that we get whenever any story about these refugees appears in the T-G: Namely overwhelmingly negative comments about the Somalis.
It was also the most read story for the month of July on our website, coming in right behind an earlier piece about the school system's new dress code. The topic of the refugees is obviously a popular one.
But it isn't just the stories about the Somalis that produce these ugly reactions. Slams against the refugees appear in the comments of other news stories as well, like the one about the latest unemployment figures published recently. The Somalis are becoming a popular scapegoat for many issues pertaining to this county.
Unfortunately, last week's story about the Franklin County incidents apparently only confirmed the community's worst suspicions about those who practice the Muslim faith.
It's not at all helpful when an individual allegedly lives up to every negative stereotype that's been said about his people and their belief system. Most of the folks around here do not leave a church service or religious gathering and immediately commit multiple felonies, as the Atlanta man is accused of doing. We will probably never know his reasons, since his injuries are so severe that the poor fellow may never regain consciousness.
But just two days after we published the crime spree story, the press release from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) came to my attention. As we all know now, the press release stated that a new contract at the Shelbyville facility "implements a new holiday to accommodate the ... Muslim workers at the plant."
What was once an unfounded rumor was now an apparent fact. So I contacted the head of media relations for Tyson Foods and asked what this was all about. While he disputed the figures given for the number of Muslims at the Shelbyville plant (Tyson claimed there are 250 while the union says 700) as well as other details, the food processing behemoth confirmed that Labor Day was indeed being phased out as a paid holiday in favor of Eid al-Fitr.
I even asked for a clarification at the request of my editor and Tyson again confirmed it. "Eid al-Fitr is one of eight paid holidays for all Team Members covered by the contract, while Labor Day is not a paid holiday," Tyson's Director of Media Relations Gary Mickelson stated in an e-mail.
So we printed it. It only took a little over an hour for the Associated Press to pick it up. But this time, our local story did not go on the state wire, as it normally would, but was instead placed on the AP financial wire.
Within hours, a crew from WSMV was being chased away from the Tyson plant and by 5 p.m. Friday evening, it was on television.
But that was nothing compared what else was happening with the story.
News sites, blogs and discussion forums all over the Internet were picking up the story like crazy over the weekend. A close friend called to tell me that it was the top subject on 99.7 FM, our area's biggest talk radio station.
And with very few exceptions, the reaction was very much like what has been seen on our website: People calling for a boycott of Tyson Foods along with outraged letters to the company and the union involved. Many point out how Christian beliefs are being sidelined in the workplace and schools while another faith is given special consideration.
Then there is the inevitable linkage to Islam in general and its more radical elements. Or linking the story to whatever agenda a person may have. One animal rights activist even sent me links to graphic videos containing animal sacrifices conducted for another Islamic festival. Another blog sought to connect the controversy to Barack Obama, since the union in question in this story has endorsed the presidential candidate.
So now, for good or ill, our little local situation concerning the Somali refugees is a hot nationwide topic. As of this writing, the story still continues to spread like a virus through the Internet and the media food chain. I would not be at all surprised if the top national talk radio shows discuss this on Monday morning.
Channel 4 is probably not the last news crew Shelbyville we will see over this.
So what do I think about all this?
Clearly, the accommodations given to the Muslims have upset a great many people here and across the county, especially if they believe, as many apparently do, that their traditional values are being suppressed in the name of cultural diversity and political correctness. More than one person has told me that their tolerance only goes so far, and this is obviously one of those times.
I have stated my opinions about the refugee issue itself before. It is my personal opinion that the drive to bring so many refugees to America are not prompted by just good will or concern for the plight of these poor people, but instead for the millions of dollars in federal grants that are available for settling them in this country. According to Chris Coen, who is trying to help out refugees of all nationalities, there is a lot of money to be made in this "profession."
I also need point out that it would appear that some of these refugees are being used for other reasons. I find some of the allegations about these employment arrangements to be awfully similar to this sort of thing, and it should not be tolerated.
I also have to say that I do not feel that I am "obsessed" or "fixated" with the topic of Somalis living here, as one blogger believes. The refugees have lived in Shelbyville for the past four years, and no one has even addressed the issue until the T-G published the series in December of last year.
I would also have to suggest that the blogger's opinion is quite possibly influenced by the fact that she makes her living by working with the Nashville refugee community, as she states on one of her other websites.
I am simply reporting on what happens when hundreds of people from a totally alien culture suddenly move to a small town in the rural south -- both the good and the bad. I can not control how people are going to react to my stories.
In closing, I'll just say that I'm going to continue to keep looking into the various issues surrounding our new neighbors so that our community can stay informed. That's what we're here for. And that's what I'm going to do.