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Erin Scaggs/Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group

This bold affirmation of love drowns out the original message underneath. Scrawled in chalk on this sidewalk on Elliot Street in Brattleboro in June was the phrase “Toten Die Juden” — German for “Kill the Jews.”

Voices / Column

If hate had no home here, these things wouldn’t be happening

The big, public expressions of racism are awful and deserve to be addressed. But are we sidestepping the real conversation that we need to be having?

Brattleboro

A community political activist was hanging posters for a legislative candidate forum a few weeks ago.

As she headed to her car, a man came up to her.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I just have to ask: how can you support a Muslim?”

The man was talking about Nader Hashim, one of the three candidates for the two-seat Windham-4 district.

Hashim is, in the words of the poster hanger, Laura Chapman, “the only one who seems to be garnering the ‘Muslim’ accusation, though any of them could be, none of them are, and it shouldn’t matter anyway.”

But the 29-year-old candidate’s skin is brown. He is the son of an Egyptian father and an Iranian mother, both immigrants.

It takes some degree of effort to pay attention to a legislative race and to recognize one of the candidates. It takes some degree of motivation to brazenly and unapologetically engage in a conversation to express this noxious view.

Other people involved in the campaign have reported similar encounters, Hashim later told me, in conversations sufficiently awkward that they did not want to go on record for a story about the fact that in 2018, in the most liberal county in the most liberal state in the union, a candidate for public office can still get blowback for nothing other than the color of his skin and a name that sounds like someone who Is Not From Here.

* * *

On a sunny Sunday morning in June, a town resident posted a photograph to the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group.

“Just seen on Elliot St.: Toten die Juden ,” wrote Rachel Zamore. “That’s German for ‘Kill the Jews.’” And, she added, “WTF.” (I briefly thought maybe I should omit that from the quote, but under the circumstances, I think genocide is a fair context for some intensified vulgar vernacular.)

Toten die Juden.

Someone was motivated to find chalk, go to a stretch of sidewalk, and write a message advocating killing Jews on a busy street in the heart of Brattleboro.

The good news is that hundreds of members of this rapidly-growing Facebook group, of which I am an administrator, stepped up in support and to repudiate the hateful message scrawled there for all to see.

More good news is that within scant hours, Erin Skaggs posted a photo of the same sidewalk, with multicolored chalk ground emphatically over the original message to reveal a stronger, bolder, message: “ love ,” accompanied by eight hearts.

“Gone now!!!” wrote Scaggs, one of the proprietors of Elliot Street Fish, Chips and More.

The drenching rains of the past few weeks have washed all the messages away, but the hateful residue of a foot-tall handwritten message advocating for the death of Jewish people — written in the native tongue of the country that methodically did just that only a couple of generations ago — still lingers here, despite it being 2018, in the most liberal county in the most liberal state of the union.

And on another sad note, police questioned Matti Salminen, who has written on sidewalks with chalk. As people asked “who could have done such a thing,” someone anonymously reported Salminen, a gentle soul who has written for publication with honesty and candor over the years about his difficulties with mental illness.

By his account, Salminen writes haikus “that my language may be appreciated by my friends, peers, and passersby.”

In welcome news, “I was approached by a police officer on South Main Street; nothing more transpired than discussion and I did not feel interrogated,” he wrote on Facebook.

“I have never written anything racist in sidewalk chalk, anywhere. And I will also like to claim that I harbor no hate toward people of other races,” he continued.

I’m glad that Salminen was not seriously pursued, but my heart sinks when I realize that, as all too often happens, the person who is mentally ill was presumed to be the perpetrator by default.

* * *

And then there were the posters.

“Here is a picture of the poster that was put up in town today,” wrote Alan Blackwell, a person of color, in his post to the Brattleboro Facebook group. “I only share this so folks are aware of exactly what it is. Offensive racist garbage.”

On the night of July 24-25, one person in this community plastered “Black lives don’t matter” posters downtown on utility poles.

These posters advertised the Atomwaffen Division, a group that describes itself as “a Revolutionary National Socialist organization centered around political activism and the practice of an autonomous Fascist lifestyle.”

It’s also a group whose website was, thankfully, suspended by its hosting company for its repugnant content. But through the magic of archive.org, I was able to find a snapshot of the site to learn more about what we’re dealing with here.

The site contained a paranoid scream of a mission statement.

“The rest of the world is collapsing beneath us all as we speak. The system is beginning to suffer the consequences of its corruption. The failure of democracy and capitalism has given way to the Jewish oligarchies and the globalist bankers resulting in the cultural and racial displacement of the white race,” the site ranted in white text on a black background with a foreboding grainy video of a constipated-looking square-jawed Aryan looping in the background.

“We have absolutely no room for moderates and cowards. We wish to appeal to the radical in this struggle, as it is the radical that etches their place into history. There is nothing that can be fixed in a system so inherently flawed, National Socialism is the only solution to reclaim dominion over what belongs to us.”

The site also offered high-resolution posters that its autonomous fascists could make an effort to print and post — including the poster that, ultimately, one such fascist did, on a hot summer night in downtown Brattleboro.

* * *

For those in our community who have been the targets of these expressions of discrimination and hate, this has been one hell of a summer. Sidewalk chalk lines were overwritten; posters were removed. But for many, including dear colleagues of Jewish heritage and with family members of color, these messages are not so easy to shake off.

I keep thinking of their reactions to these events. And I keep thinking of how our region tends to respond.

It is satisfying — and appropriate — to come out resoundingly, loudly, emphatically, unambiguously in support of our neighbors who are targeted by this speech. “Hate has no home here,” one bumper sticker declares. “Hate does not grow in the rocky soil of Vermont,” reads one banner.

Of course, we want that to be so. But hate does obviously have a home here, despite many years of good efforts and progress. When we attempt to drown out the hate with louder and bolder love, we risk making it more difficult to discuss how to stop it.

Rare but dramatic acts of overt, over-the-top racism can be a smokescreen as far more of our own friends, family, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors create a reasonable habitat for that hate to germinate, albeit in a more socially acceptable manner.

All the while, we’re focusing on discussing the graffiti of outlying extremists who hide in the shadows and — guaranteed — are not moved by the symbolism and the solidarity, before the public conversation stops altogether.

* * *

So what do we do instead?

First, we have a big problem in the large chunk of the electorate for whom there is seemingly — and proudly — no reason, no thought, no logic, no compassion, no humility, no empathy.

For some, the fever of Donald Trump will never be broken.

But a community that stands on the side of love needs the support of another group: truly good people who are accustomed to thinking about race in hurtful and damaging ways, not out of hate but out of habit. I bet we all know people who fit this profile.

Such people might not be up on terminology. They might not vote to one‘s liking. They might make people who are in the social-justice movement cringe.

But there’s promise. There’s hope.

We can’t make people change immediately how they think about racial and ethnic hatred — those attitudes evolve organically over time and with effort.

And those attitudes will never evolve if we lose all capacity or desire to interact with people who see the world in very different ways.

We ultimately don’t change minds with shaming — instead, we help close them, severing the connections that give us our community a fighting chance of finding some — any — common ground on the basis of human dignity.

So can we cultivate our personal relationships where we can have these difficult conversations with integrity, empathy, intelligence, and mutual respect? And patience for a journey not yet started, much less complete?

Maybe, just maybe, that will be our last best hope of keeping new seeds of hate from being planted in our rocky soil.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #471 (Wednesday, August 8, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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