Even today, the words scribbled across the pages in angry ALL CAPS are hard to look at.
“HOW DO YOU GET A NIGGER OUT OF A TREE? CUT THE ROPE!!”
“BEFORE THIS WORLD ENDS, THERE WILL BE A RACE WAR…”
“ALL YOU PEOPLE DO IS CRY BITCH WINE [sic], BITCH.”
“HAVE YOU PLAYED THE RACE CARD MICHELLE THIS WEEK?”
Back then, I would pull the letters I received out of sealed plastic bags with rubber gloves while standing outdoors, so as not to expose my coworkers at the newspaper to any potential toxins — and to preserve any fingerprints that might still be imprinted atop these hateful words.
I would stare at the manifestos – some of which were several pages long, and others scrawled across clippings of newspaper articles from across the southeastern seaboard-directed at me, mailed to the newsroom every few months between 2005 and 2007. They were little written terrorist bombs tossed into my daily routine of getting my children off to school, studying in my graduate program and working at Florida’s Daytona Beach News-Journal as a night news editor, weekly columnist, and online community manager. It was my role as a columnist that made me a target for hate letters.
The comments were included in anonymous letters and envelopes with no return address. As the first African-American columnist at the newspaper, I wrote a weekly lifestyle column called “Chasing Rainbows” for more than five years and my picture appeared next to those columns.
I wrote slice-of-life columns, personal fly-on-the-wall accounts of life in an African-American household with young children. I wrote about teaching my children to ride bicycles, the Halloween costumes we made, our reactions to world events as they unfolded before us. My first column painfully asked how to explain death to young children as we watched the horror of the Columbia shuttle explosion playing over and over on our television screen in 2003. Subsequent columns illuminated intimate spaces of the African-American experience that were as universal as any other story. My last column celebrated Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.
Each column represented a personal narrative of my everyday life intended to resonate across gender, ethnic, age, or other categorizations of my readers. I shared my family’s intimate moments to try to bridge differences. And the stories connected with many readers in the Daytona Beach audience of transplants, locals, snowbirds, retirees, young families, and others. I often spoke at public schools, civic events, church services, and other venues about writing, my columns and my readers’ responses.
My column coincided with the rise of “mommy bloggers” in the online world. We were the vanguard, moving our lifestyle columns from printed newspapers onto online platforms that received worldwide visibility. However, just as in the physical world, hate and misogyny moved online. Women writers found themselves at the forefront of uncovering just how ugly anonymous Web audiences can be.
When I received the first anonymous letter, I realized there was a dark undercurrent to my audience. The big, block letters shouted vitriol from the page. One, in particular, stood out-a lengthy diatribe, full of hateful imagery designed to strike terror. I couldn’t understand how someone could hate so much, and direct that hate toward me, a person he or she had only encountered through a picture and a column in a newspaper. I shoved the letter into a folder for my special fan mail… the kind that made my skin crawl.
* * *
In addition to writing as a columnist for the newspaper, I worked the night news desk, often arriving to work at 5 p.m. and completing my shift at 1:30 a.m. My husband worked a few blocks from my building and I would drop off the kids with him on my way to work. He would drive them home, get them dinner and put them to bed.
I worked in the newsroom with a skeleton crew of 20 employees in the building, deep into the night, editing local copy, designing pages, and proofing the paper before it went to press. There was no security at the building after midnight and I often walked through the darkness to my car alone.
Only after receiving several angry letters did I finally go to the police. By this time, my husband and I had an alarm system installed in our home. I had begun asking colleagues about their experiences with hate mail and other reader reactions. I called professional organizations to discuss what resources were available for members who experienced this type of harassment. I asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), local law enforcement, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies and professional organizations to investigate my case.
Usually, I got a shrug. Some journalism colleagues considered hate mail a badge of honor. They must be doing something right, they reasoned, to prompt such a visceral response. The typical response from the professional organizations I contacted was, “We don’t have anything to deal with that.”
On the law enforcement side, my conversations weren’t much more fruitful. Basically, I was told, “There’s nothing we can do” because this letter writer hadn’t fulfilled his threats; these were just threats. Hate mail, it seemed, could not really be investigated until something actually happened. Until whoever this was actually did something to me, there was nothing the authorities could do.
I had literally put my life into my columns. Community members knew my children’s names, where they went to school, how they were doing on their school projects, and their obsessions with video games and reading. How could I protect them from this nameless, faceless threat?
I certainly tried. I wasn’t going to leave my life or the lives of my children in such cavalier hands. I researched laws and tracked down legal cases, and eventually found sympathetic ears at the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose staff researches incidents of hate crimes across the United States. I reiterated my suspicions about the letters-that this wasn’t the work of one racist, crazy person. This letter-writing campaign was a coordinated effort, a tactic used by hate groups to shut down diverse voices through intimidation and fear.
When the letters kept coming, I finally convinced the police to set up a special patrol around my neighborhood. Our children had cell phones long before their peers, so they could communicate with my husband and me at all times. I had begun wearing wigs and disguising myself when I went about in public, and I began to avoid making public appearances. I never talked about the letters in my columns, fearing that to mention the horrible threats might cause them to escalate.
* * *
Unless it has happened to you, it is hard to imagine what this kind of stalking feels like. Trust me. You don’t want to know. Even years later, thinking, talking, or writing about these experiences makes it hard for me to breathe.
I felt powerless. I became more suspicious. I was frustrated. I had a voice, a platform to talk about issues, but I couldn’t talk about this. The cowards could not even face me, would not participate in any sort of dialogue with me, would not allow me to challenge their stereotypes of black people. I struggled to remain authentic to my readers as I kept this shadow side of my life out of the newspaper.
My newspaper management created a protocol to handle my mail. When a suspicious letter came to the building, it would be bagged and sent to Human Resources, who would call me. I would carefully carry the bag to the local police department for copies and to add to my unresolved report. At night, management suggested I walk with a coworker to my car to keep me safe. As the letters continued, these procedures seemed pointless. Months turned into years.
I became a different person as a result of my hate mail. I became less trusting. I had always naively thought that I would be willing to die rather than have to kill someone. But as the letters continued, I became angrier. I learned to shoot a gun. I was prepared physically and mentally to defend my family and myself. Each day, I would take a different route to and from work, trying to outsmart the crazy.
You would think that this could be something one could get used to, that maybe, over time, that it would become easier to read each successive letter. But letters turned to packages. White supremacist newsletters sent to me became the backing for ever-escalating hate. And toward the end, I couldn’t recognize what little humanity might be lurking behind each envelope. I had become the target of every bad thing that had happened in this letter writer’s life and the lives of white people. And he wanted me to pay… in the upcoming race wars featuring me and all the other niggers.
It didn’t help that as the rhetoric heated up, a black man was rising in power. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed to a spike in hate crimes nationwide and written attacks against Obama leading up to the inauguration. Finally, the Committee to Protect Journalists heard of my case. They followed up with the FBI, retrieved copies of the letters, and in 2008, wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation. The response: Nothing. We now had a black president and it seemed that all the hate groups were whipped into a frenzy. My case was no doubt dwarfed by the efforts to protect our first black president.
I shied away from controversial topics in my columns, attempting to use a keyboard like a divining rod to see what might provoke a racist response. I became contemplative, thinking out loud with my readers about my family and wrestling with difficult life choices. My readers knew me too well. After all, when you open your heart as I did each week, readers will recognize when things are off. One day, a longtime reader called me in the newsroom. “I know something’s going on and I’m not going to let you off the phone until you tell me,” she demanded. “I’ve been reading your last couple of columns and something’s going on. Can I help?”
I broke down and told her about the letters. Outside of my employer and the law enforcement agencies, I hadn’t shared with friends or family what was going on. But her genuine desire to help broke through the defenses I’d built against the outside world and my own readers.
She offered her home as a safe house. She gave me her phone number and told me where to find the spare key so I could let myself in. “Don’t stop writing. That would let them win,” she said.
I kept writing. But the emotional strain on my family and me was taking its toll. My children sensed something was going on. Every time a letter arrived at the newspaper, mommy was even more vigilant, requiring check-ins at school, at home, and with friends. The police patrols would increase then die down again. I stopped working on the night news desk and moved into a new daytime position as an online community manager. I kept writing, while wondering if it was worth it.
Someone wanted to silence my voice. Intellectually, I could understand why. Those homespun stories were making a difference. One column I wrote about a field trip with my daughter to a plantation prompted one reader to admit his African-American heritage-and pledge to invite his black relatives to the next family reunion. The story I wrote about losing our family cat prompted an avalanche of mail from readers sharing their grief. Being a columnist was more than an intellectual activity or a job-it was a mission to connect us as humans, despite our differences. My columns reflected the experiences of one African-American family and our everyday struggles. It was my heart, served up weekly. However, inside, I was bleeding from these anonymous, racist cuts. Just as I would think things had died down, BAM! Another paper cut to the heart.
The next letter I received was the last straw. I remember getting it from Human Resources and the chagrined look on my coworker’s face as I recognized the handwriting on the envelope. Driving down the street to the police station, I pulled over and read the letter, plastic gloves wiping away the tears as the hate screamed up from the page.
A mantra kept repeating in my head: I don’t have to live like this. I don’t have to live like this. I don’t have to live like this. I called my husband to say that I was taking another letter to the police. And that this was the last one. I was done. I was leaving the newspaper.
My next call was to my boss. “I’m resigning,” I said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
I didn’t say goodbye to my readers, though I knew as I wrote my last column about Obama’s inauguration that it was going to be my last. There’s hopefulness embedded in my words, for black people, for an America that finally moved past race and elected a black president, for race relations in general. There’s hopefulness for a post-racial America that the reality of my life mocked. I still dreamed of something different. I wanted something different for me and for my children and for my country. However, as the column went to press, I was on my way to a new job as a journalism professor in a state far, far away.
* * *
There are long-term psychological impacts to the type of hate I experienced. You never forget. When #gamergate began attacking women journalists online in August 2014, I remembered my own experiences and wanted to do something “anti-gamergate” to help the targets of online harassment persist online. These online trolls have used social media to swarm women journalists and thought leaders, damaging our identities, our digital reputations, and our ability to make a living. Women are most at risk online, particularly women journalists.
That’s why in January 2015, I founded TrollBusters-a just-in-time rescue service for women journalists. We provide a hedge of protection around women so they can persist online and tell the story, and not become the story.
Michelle Ferrier worked for the Daytona Beach News-Journal from 2002 to 2009, during which she completed her Ph.D. program in Texts and Technology and pioneered emerging technologies in online communities, online learning, and virtual reality. She is the founder of TrollBusters, a service and technology to support women journalists against online harassment.