America Can Be a Violent, Hateful Place: One Group Is Fighting Back
Do most Americans grasp just what a violent culture we live in? Probably not. As Tim Wise said about deeply embedded attitudes of white supremacy, “a fish doesn’t know it’s wet.” Our culture and our history are saturated with violence starting with genocide against first peoples’ and the brutality required to build and maintain an economy based on slavery.
In my lifetime, the US has been waging war somewhere on this planet virtually every day of my life. US rates for homicide have long been among the highest per capita in the world. Scan the listings for TV shows or video games with an eye to how much violence propels the massive entertainment industry. Non-stop news coverage of violence in other nations contributes to the sense that this is just "the way things are.” Our immersion in violence is so pervasive it’s understandable that most would think the extent of it is normal.
Most perhaps, but not all. The history of our nation also includes the courageous struggle of the abolitionists to change the attitudes and behaviors of slavery. Later came a fight against lynching. Then the dismantling of Jim Crow apartheid by the civil rights movement.
Over the last 20 years a group called Not In Our Town (NIOT) has shown a community-based way to combat hate crimes. It began in Billings, Montana, where white supremacists had launched a series of attacks on minorities. In one incident, they threw rocks through the bedroom window of a child whose home displayed a menorah.
Enough! said a broad and diverse group of Billings citizens. “Not in our town” became their motto and a movement was born. Thousands of Billings residents displayed paper menorahs printed in the Billings Gazette in their windows in a show of unity and solidarity.
Since then, Not In Our Town has evolved into a national movement to stop hate, address bullying and build safe, inclusive communities for all. NIOT harnesses the power of film and online media to change hearts and minds, and engages local communities on the ground in sustainable, long-term action. Racial, religious, ethnic, and gender divisions can undermine democracy and prevent people from participating in civic life. NIOT works to surface these issues and create community-wide solutions.
Over the past two decades, NIOT has produced five PBS films, held thousands of community screenings nationwide and launched campaigns in Russia, the Ukraine, Hungary and Central Europe. In the U.S., NIOT maintains a network of more than 70 local community groups and its online platform, NIOT.org, attracts more than 1 million visitors annually. The NIOT YouTube channel hosts over 100 films, which have been viewed more than 640,000 times. NIOT’s education initiative, Not In Our School, has reached over 100 schools and 100,000 students.
This weekend from June 20-22, Billings will be in the spotlight again, as local leaders from 46 cities across the U.S. convene to share strategies on how to prevent the next hate crime. The NIOT National Leadership Gathering will bring together mayors, school leaders, newspaper editors, prosecutors, police and community activists to share successful strategies on how to stop hate and bullying, and foster inclusion.
Montana governor Steve Bullock will open the Gathering on Friday, June 20. The U.S. Department of Justice COPS office, partnering with Not In Our Town on the Safe, Inclusive Communities Initiative, will lead sessions for law enforcement and community leaders. Educators will gather for a pre-conference on how to address bullying and school safety.
A major highlight of the event will be the launch of the Not In Our Town Gold Star Cities campaign, honoring cities and towns making a commitment to creating thriving, diverse communities.
Many of those attending are either victims of or responders to hate crimes, showing the personal impact of these crimes and the importance of a proactive response. This remarkable list of leaders includes:
- Community leaders from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where six worshipers at a Sikh temple were killed by a white supremacist in 2012.
- Pardeep Kaleka, son of the slain Sikh temple president, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead, have banded together to build an anti-hate program for high school students.
- Lt. Brian Murphy, the responding officer who was shot 17 times defending the temple, says the Sikh spirit of forgiveness has transformed him.
- Mayor Steve Scaffidi, now leading the Oak Creek, WI community to stop hate and gun violence.
- Oscar Garcia, assistant district attorney in San Diego County, is the hate crimes prosecutor and an active member of a community wide anti-hate group.
- Estela De Los Rios and Jesse Castenada, community activists working to stop anti-immigrant violence.
- Victor Hwang, police commission member and former hate crimes prosecutor in San Francisco.
- Eran Thompson and Margaret MacDonald, community leaders from Billings, Montana, the subject of the first NIOT PBS documentary.
Visit NIOT.org for more information about the Gathering.