News & Politics

How to Stop Hate in Your Hometown

The human capacity for hate crimes will never disappear, but a 10-year-old successful activist campaign against white supremacists in a Montana town offers a way for local residents to deal with hate in their communities.
Humans hate. Apparently it's a significant component of our emotional "palette." At the risk of sounding naïve, or visionary, someday maybe we'll evolve out of it. Hate may become unnecessary like our tonsils -- unused and serving no purpose but still there, only occasionally becoming infected. Or maybe we'll learn to focus and harness hate so that it is only directed usefully at injustice and cruelty. It's not inconceivable at all that medicine will find a cure, much as progress continues to be made on curing depression.

For now though, hate can rear its ugly head in social as well as individual and family settings. Mistrust, fear, hatred of the "other" race, the "other" gender, the "other" religion, the "other" nationality, or the "other" sexual orientation can escape the boundaries of civil order. Then vandalism and violence, up to and including murder, result. At that point a community faces a crisis.

Since we don't have a cure for hate, the best we can do is an antidote. There is one. It was "invented" 10 years ago in Billings, Mont. It's called Not In Our Town (NIOT). Thanks to the efforts of a nonprofit media production company called The Working Group (TWG), the NIOT model has grown in scope and substance.

Ten years ago TWG made a film about how people in Billings resisted the efforts of white supremacists to gain a foothold in their community. That simple half-hour story about a small Western town sparked a decade-long campaign against hate violence in communities around the country.

TWG has been tracking and connecting a remarkable group of NIOT activists over the years. They are the people who refuse to be silent when they know something is wrong. They are upstanders, not bystanders. They take action when their neighbors or their town is in trouble.

The NIOT model has been used, one community at a time, from Newark, Calif., Olympia, Wash., Bloomington-Normal, Ill., Charleston, W.Va. and elsewhere to restore order, calm and civil decency to schools and communities convulsed by hate crimes.

For the first time ever, local NIOT activists will gather in Bloomington-Normal on Oct. 5-7.

As fate would have it, this 10th anniversary gathering could not come at a better time. Why? Speaking personally, over several decades of civil rights, labor, peace and justice activism, I have never felt so strongly that the direction of the United States is so "up for grabs." I think this sense of danger and possibility is widespread. So while a localized approach to a hate crime or incident is always necessary, it is no longer sufficient.

The hard fascism of Germany, Italy and Japan didn't come all at once. It was preceded by soft fascism. It first came slowly in tiny steps. It came amidst the pull of everyday life that caused people to look away when they saw and heard hate and abuse, scapegoating and discrimination. Hannah Arendt famously called it the banality of evil. The current turmoil, animosity and confusion that define our national political life creates plenty of moist soil in which hate can grow. You can see it in the arc of the debate in recent years about affirmative action, immigration and gay marriage.

NIOT knows what to do it about hate. We will need many more Not In Our Towns in the months and years ahead. And they will need to work more closely together.

Perhaps that sounds depressing. Don't take it that way. To meet the NIOT activists is to be inspired that hate can be defeated. Time after time, they have turned a negative into a positive. And now the courage and inventiveness shown by these community activists have the potential to be forged into an effective national force.

If you're looking for hope and a well-tested action plan, the NIOT Gathering, to be held Oct. 5-7 in Bloomington-Normal is a guaranteed good place to find it.
Frank Joyce is a journalist and communications consultant. He is also president of The Working Group (TWG) Board.
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