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Dilemma: Reaction in the Face of Hate

by Polly Attwood | published in The Concord Journal

One of the ongoing concerns for any community today is how to respond to hate crimes and the actions of hate groups. These are very tricky questions, but ignoring them cannot be an option – we have to acknowledge that hate crimes and the groups that perpetrate them are still a fact in our world.

A couple of years ago, for example, Concord was visited by members of such a group. Bundles of leaflets were dropped in a couple of streets – their pernicious material left for unsuspecting residents to find in the morning. This raises perplexing questions for us. While we can recognize and affirm the groups within our community who contribute to a climate of freedom, understanding and human dignity, what do we do about groups whose sole aim seems to be to sow hatred, distrust, and the demonizing of selected groups?

Sometimes, our course of action is clear – appropriate action is obvious. Depending on the circumstances, we have, in the past, held rallies or candlelight vigils to show our outrage, to support those targeted; we have contacted appropriate advocacy agencies; written letters to local papers, worked with the Police Department, the schools, local businesses to resolve the issue. Sometimes the actions are public, sometimes not – depending, again, on the circumstances and the wishes of those affected by the particular incident. In this particular case, publicizing the hate leaflets would merely have been aiding the hate group in spreading their obnoxious charges, advertising their website, which would probably then have registered thousands of ‘hits’ – exactly what they wanted. We elected not to do so – in complete agreement with the Police Department and the Anti-Defamation League.

But that leaves something unsatisfied. Ignoring the incident is not appropriate! But what is? We discussed ways of being pro-active – warning people that these groups (mostly our-of-state but, sadly, not all) are still active. We talked about the need to be constantly vigilant, but that can seem alarmist, and can sometimes open us to allegations of seeing prejudice where none exists.

Parents want, naturally, to shield their children from exposure to these elements – who would want to destroy their innocence? But what about when they go out into the ‘real’ world? Will they be sufficiently armored to withstand – and stand up against, either for themselves or someone else – these vitriolic attacks? Where is the balance that we need to find, between over-reacting and under-reacting?

My own inclination is that each incident needs to be assessed individually. There can be no hard and fast rules, no iron-clad solutions. However, some things are givens: certainly, education needs to be ongoing, support needs to be extended to those who are targeted, and we need to be aware of what goes on in the community. After that, though, we need to be very thoughtful in our responses.

To go public or not? That often depends on the wishes of the ‘victims’ in the cases of individuals – for example, a family whose house is spray painted with hate symbols, or who receives hate mail. (The Human Rights Council always adheres to those wishes.)

To respond with a community-wide expression of outrage? We have held outdoor rallies in the past when the situation seems to warrant such a response.

Requesting and facilitating meetings with the parties involved? We have done that too.

Bringing together groups in town who can help change behaviors and practices? That, too, has been successful on numerous occasions

Maybe the answer is that our response must always be three-fold. First, there must always be a sense of outrage, a commitment to stand against bigotry wherever and whenever it appears, and a firm belief in ourselves as agents of change, both personally, and as a group. Secondly, pro-active work in education, sensitivity training, anti-racism, legislative initiatives, public awareness – these must be the backbone of our daily work. Then, thirdly, when incidents do occur, we should be thoughtful and reflective in each particular circumstance, examining the range of possible responses already outlined, and weighing carefully the possible outcomes of each of our actions.

In the current political and social climate, we believe that fear and insecurity are causing some dangerous tendencies in profiling, stereotyping and suspicion of certain ethnic, cultural and religious groups. With these tensions present in our lives, it is crucial that we monitor our behavior as individuals and as a community, and that we uphold the rights and the dignity of all people.

Polly Attwood, Co-chair, Concord Carlisle Human Rights Council P. O. Box 744, Concord MA 01742 Email:

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