Not In Our Town (a free review)
There's nothing particularly new about hate crimes. A recent report from the FBI reveals that in 1994 alone nearly 6,000 hate crimes were reported -- and it is widely believed that thousands of acts of hate-motivated violence go unreported each year. In just the first few weeks of November, 1995, the land of the free saw dozens of hate crimes. In Madison, Wisconsin a sandwich shop owner was convicted of a racially-motivated pepper spraying; he was evidently incensed by what he witnessed -- a white woman kissing a black man outside his shop; in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, two men were arrested for spray-painting "Hitler is God" and "Kill Jews" on the grave of a Jewish war veteran; across the country in Novato, California, race was the motivation of a 23-year-old white man who repeatedly stabbed an Asian outside a supermarket. Billings, Montana is a lot like these towns -- and the series of hate crimes that shook it were not particularly unusual. Swastikas were painted on a home of a Native American. Graves were overturned in a Jewish cemetery. A black church became the prey of skinheads. Ordinary vile sprayed from everyday fountains of hate. What was extraordinary was the community's response. Not in our town, a PBS documentary produced by the California Working Group, tells the story of how the people of Billings said "no" to hate and intolerance. What Billings learned was that it doesn't take a hero to stem the growth of hate crimes and racial intolerance. What it does take, as this 25-minute portrait of Billings so powerfully demonstrates, is an organized alliance of citizens, churches, unions, and the media. In this age of hate talk radio, angry white males and militia madness, this Montana town is one example of what can be done, a hopeful sign in precarious times. Billings resident Dawn Fast Horse woke up one morning to the site of swastikas and the words "Indians Suck" scrawled across the outside of her house. By that night her home was restored. "So many of the times there's a cause and I ended up standing on the sidelines," says Gary Modie, one of 30 volunteer painters and some 100 community members who went to Fast Horse's house in support. "I would feel something but I never really did a lot to do anything about anything. And I was really glad to help paint the house, and more so to help convey a message to these guys that the community will not stand for that." The scene of people coming together was one that would be repeated, in various shapes and forms, in the face of ongoing hate crimes. The hate mongers in Billings weren't picky. Blacks, gays, and Jews were all fair game. When a black church became the target of skinhead intimidation, local activists of all colors began attending services. "Denomination didn't count, ethnic background didn't count, color of skin didn't count," says Reverend Bob Freeman. "It was just that we were one people all together as one and...let them know, 'Hey, if you bite one you bite us all.' " A brick went through the window of a Jewish child whose window bore a menorah -- and the local paper printed a full-page, color picture of a menorah so that others could hang it in their windows in solidarity. With the help of merchants, by late December, nearly 10,000 people in Billings, Montana had this symbol of Jews overcoming persecution displayed in their windows. These and other towns that look lot like America remain racial, sexual, and religious battlegrounds. There are many more wars to be fought by communities such as Billings. As political comic and Not In Our Town's graceful narrator Will Durst offers: "[Billings] has been called the all-American city. You got to like that -- especially if you think that America is a place where ordinary citizens will put themselves on the frontlines to fight the everyday battle against intolerance." So inspiring is the story of Billings that it has sparked a national movement. During "Not In Our Town Week," December 10-17, in addition to the airing of this documentary, community leaders, organizations, and individuals throughout the country will take a variety of actions to spread the message of how to counter hate. There will be televised discussions and radio shows, local town meetings, distribution of "Not In Our Town" buttons, reporting and promotion of the project in newspapers and other media outlets -- all vital parts of a national dialogue about how to make intolerance to hate a reality in town after town across America. The documentary NOT IN OUT TOWN part of Not In Our Town Week, December 10-17, a national campaign to help raise awareness about how to counter hate, sponsored by the Institute for Alternative Journalism/AlterNet and the California Working Group. For more information about the campaign, call IAJ at 415-284-1420.