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News Analysis: Some Communities Come Together to Force Hate Groups to Hit the Road

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Last July one of Matthew Hale’s neighbors in East Peoria, Ill., tacked up a simple sign: “Hate Has No Home Here.”

That appeared to be the consensus of the 200 local residents who gathered for a prayer vigil outside the headquarters of the World Church of the Creator, which Hale runs out of his parents’ home, after a member of the group went on a deadly shooting rampage targeted at minorities.

Like the residents of Billings, Mont., who chased out white supremacists in 1993, and dozens of other communities around the country that have stood up against hate, East Peoria sounded its own variation on the mantra: “Not in Our Town.”

In the wake of a series of high-profile murders and shooting rampages sparked by hate, from Jasper, Texas to Laramie, Wyo., from Illinois to California, communities across the country have increasingly begun to explore ways to neutralize bigotry and counter the scourge of hate-driven violence.

While some politicians and activists involved in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry have underscored the importance of strengthening federal hate crimes laws and curbing access to guns, many communities around the country are taking more localized approaches, focusing on raising awareness of the dangers of hate and turning its manifestations into opportunities to promote tolerance.

“The remarkable thing is that a hate group coming to town can serve as a catalyst for very good things,” said Mark Potok, an analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based group that tracks hate groups. “A number of communities around the country have used appearances of hate groups to build unity coalitions or anti-hate groups of one kind or another, and often these groups have far outlasted the Klan or the neo-Nazi appearance of one day.”

As an aid to communities looking to develop positive responses to hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center has begun distributing a new publication titled “Ten Ways to Fight Hate.” It outlines a series of steps that have been tested in communities around the country by a wide range of human rights, religious and civic organizations.

The guide advises people to take an active stance against hate; organize a diverse coalition of allies; support the victims; persuade politicians and community leaders to stand against hate; teach tolerance to children; and examine the root causes of racism, prejudice and bigotry.

That’s exactly what the residents of East Peoria, led by the mayor and the city attorney and joined by civil rights activists, sought to do in July in response to the violence linked to the World Church of the Creator.

“We will not surrender the minds of our young to Matt Hale,” Charles Dobbelaire, the mayor of East Peoria, said in July as he announced the creation of a commission to combat hate and teach tolerance.

“I know that still today there are those who believe we should not attract attention to the hatemongers,” he said. “They believe that if we quietly go about our everyday life, those who preach hate will fade slowly into the night. I ask you this: If we do not speak out, loud and clear, when the hate messages spewing forth from this so-called church lead to death, then when do we speak out?”

East Peoria was just one stop on a larger civil rights tour that retraced Smith’s path through Illinois and Indiana. The tour was organized by the Illinois-based Center for New Community, a group that monitors hate activity in the Midwest, as part of its goal of building “moral barriers against hate for the long haul,” said the Rev. David Ostendorf, the group’s director.

“We’re past the time when we can sort of quietly let these groups operate in our communities,” he said. “It’s crucial that we speak up and speak out and take action to expose them, to rally against them if necessary.”

Similar approaches have been utilized elsewhere around the country.

In Colorado, what started as a rally of outraged citizens following the murder of an African immigrant outside a Denver hotel in 1997 ultimately led to the creation of a coalition dedicated to fighting hate.

“We said we will not tolerate this in our town, and we decided we would keep the organization intact because we did not just want to be a group that held rallies when people got killed. We wanted to try to prevent this sort of thing,” said Anita Fricklas, who co-chairs Colorodans United Against Hatred and serves as the Colorado regional director of the American Jewish Committee.

The group has been using the Internet as its primary organizing tool. “A lot of the hate groups have Web sites, so this is a way to say we’re fighting hate on your turf,” Fricklas said.

One of the better known and most imaginative examples of a community taking a stand against hate activity occurred six years ago in Billings.

White supremacists had appeared in town, terrorizing residents by distributing Ku Klux Klan fliers, desecrating a Jewish cemetery, intimidating black churchgoers, and hurling bricks through the windows of Jewish homes displaying menorahs.

Outraged citizens took immediate action. A volunteer workforce formed to paint over racist graffiti, religious groups from every denomination held marches and candlelight vigils and the local newspapers printed full-page menorahs that nearly 10,000 residents displayed in the windows of their homes and businesses as a gesture of support for the town’s Jewish families.

Billings’ response, which drove the white supremacists out of town, is not that hard to replicate, according to Christine Kaufmann, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, which helped organize the community’s response. “It’s really very simple. People think this is a big deal, but it’s just organize, organize, organize — very basic steps,” she said.

“You call together a bunch of people, say what you want your community to be like, start throwing out ideas, and it snowballs from there,” she added. “There really is no magic. The reason I guess it doesn’t happen more often is that it’s a lot of hard work that no one is getting paid to do.”

Various battles against hate ideologies may be won through grass-roots organizing and a community’s courageous stand, but hate will never be eradicated, as most of those trying to stamp it out will readily admit.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, believes, though, that people can be “innoculated” against it if efforts are focused on an even more fundamental level — in the home, with parents teaching tolerance to their kids.

To that end, the ADL last week launched a new anti-violence television ad campaign in conjunction with NBC aimed at encouraging parents to talk to their children about hate.

“It’s an acquired disease,” Foxman said. “We inflict it, we develop it, we impart it to the kids and we infect them with it.”

For that reason, he said, “we’re also capable of preventing it.”

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