Lessons from Olympia, Washington
By Reiko Callner and Anna Schlecht, coordinators of Olympia, Washington’s Unity in the Community
When hate group activity occurs in a community, it is incumbent upon local residents who value diversity to take action.
Since the early 1980s, Olympia, WA, the state’s politically progressive capital city, has dealt with the threat of neo-Nazi hate groups organizing in the area. As a diverse and involved community, our response has been to enlist our community’s full breadth. Our tools of engagement have been energetic and broad-based, including festivals, speakers, grass-roots fundraisers, panels and films. We contribute much of our success to 1) focusing on building trust among all members of our coalition, 2) being vigilant in gathering information on the specific hate groups, and 3) working with local law enforcement agencies, as well as the area’s faith communities.
Hate groups advocate extreme prejudice, vandalism or violence as a way to instill fear and terror among people on the basis of race, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. These groups, seeking to tap a vein of underlying bigotry in U.S. society, use hate language, threats, symbols and actual incidents of violence to send a message of intolerance. To counter these bias incidents, many communities have created groups and developed protocols to mobilize a broad and positive show of support for diversity. Here is the protocol we developed in Olympia, WA.
GET THE FACTS. Once notified of a hateful incident, follow up on the original source of information, whether it’s the local newspaper or other media, a police report, eyewitness account or crime victim’s story. Get the most accurate account of what did occur or what’s being announced as forthcoming. In cases involving acts of graffiti, determine exactly who or what was targeted and the nature of the graffiti (i.e. swastikas or slurs.) In the case of a physical assault, determine who was injured, the exact nature of the injuries, when and where it occurred, and the number and description of assailants. If an event such as a hate rally has been announced, note what precisely was stated, including the involvement of specific organizations and their planned action. If it’s an action by the National Socialist Movement (NSM), for example, you can conduct a web search to learn about their activities and efforts in other communities. You can also find valuable information about hate groups on the websites of the Anti-Defamation League’s and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Be aware that the fear generated by hate incidents can lead to exaggeration. Maintaining accuracy will be key to building your coalition and maintaining your public credibility.
SUPPORT TARGETS OF HATE. Prioritize advocacy and support to people directly targeted by hate incidents. One or more individuals who are ideally trained as crime victim advocates or are naturally sensitive and considerate should make contact with the affected people, acknowledge the damage done, express support and sympathy, and see if there’s something tangible your group can do for them. Let them know immediately that they are not alone and people are concerned and sympathetic.
MAP OUT YOUR ALLIES. Seek out the folks that share your concerns about hate group activity and work up a plan to expand your base of support. Do an inventory of the people and organizations, which may include the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, human rights organizations, ethnic and cultural associations, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender rights organizations, faith community leaders, inter-faith associations, local business people, elected officials, law enforcement, high school, college or university student organizations, faculty and other staff. If you are responding to hate crimes, include people and organizations with trained experience as advocates, such women’s shelter advocates and crime victim advocates. Research your state and local hate bias crime laws and find out which local law enforcement jurisdictions have experience and training to respond. Learn from the experience of other communities. Think big. Think broad-based. If your coalition all gets along then you don’t have a diverse enough coalition. A broad-based coalition will merit and gain positive coverage by the local and possibly wider-reaching media.
HOST A COMMUNITY MEETING. Engage your list of allied individuals and groups to come together. If your community has a natural focal group (for example, a strong human relations commission or an interfaith alliance) to convene such a meeting, work with them to host the meeting. It may, however, be more inviting to create a new coalition. By creating a temporary alliance of distinct parties, persons, or states for joint action, you will create a more neutral environment in which diverse parts of your community can feel welcome to participate. In choosing the facilitator(s) to host and facilitate the meeting, deliberately seek out two or more people who themselves represent the diversity that you seek to build among your coalition. Recognize that diversity means differences. Not everyone will agree on what to do. Some folks may want to directly confront and drive out hate groups. Some folks will want to change the focus entirely to celebrating diversity. Encourage your facilitators to model how people with very different strategies (confrontation vs. celebration, radical vs. mainstream, secular vs. faith community) and divergent backgrounds (racial, faith, sexual orientation, age, or gender) can find ways to bridge the gaps and work together.
Develop an agenda that allows time for introductions, a clear and accurate accounting of incidents, discussion of options for community responses and a development of an initial plan of response, and brainstorming of action committees and future tasks. Develop and maintain a coalition structure that keeps everyone informed, allows for meaningful participation by all members, and then get busy.
DEVELOP AN INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY-BASED RESPONSE. Based on the agreed plan of response, facilitate the coalition’s work toward unifying the community in an appropriate response to hate activity. The range of community responses include rallies, speakers series, school engagement, marketing materials and newspaper ads, and counter celebrations.
- Rallies: Host a pro-diversity rally featuring speakers from divergent parts of the community in a local gathering spot that showcases precisely the unity in the community that the hate incidents seek to undermine
- Speakers Series: Assemble a list of culturally diverse community members to give talks for local civic organizations about your efforts
- School Engagement: Involve schools and seek out sympathetic K-12 school teachers and staff to host speakers in classes or develop student forums on the subject of diversity.
- Developing a Marketing Campaign: Develop a poster with a positive message and recognizable logo to create a visual show of support throughout the community. Stickers of a logo are also a fantastic way to spread visible signs of community solidarity.
- Newspaper Ads: Raise money to run an ad in the local newspaper(s) featuring your pro-diversity message, your logo and the names of your supporters by asking donors to give at least $5 to list their name. Ask your local newspaper to waive the fees, following the example of The Olympian of Washington and the Billings Gazette of Montana. This sends a strong message of support for diversity.
- Counter-Celebrations: Consider hosting a celebratory event that affirms the positive, diverse nature of your community, rather than simply reacting to and possibly mirroring negativity of the hate group. In this day of near-universal computer access, web sites and email lists can be quick and effective ways to organize participants. Phone trees also work well. You should urge prudence in who has access to this list depending on the nature of the hate group. You do not want it infiltrated and used to intimidate your membership.
SAFETY PLANNING. Take hate groups seriously. Encourage the visible leaders of your effort to exercise some prudence without bringing their actions to a halt. Express your reasonable concerns to law enforcement and set up a buddy system for late night meetings. If needed, consider hiring off-duty police for security. These steps provide security, are good talking points for why your community needs to coalesce, and reinforce for law enforcement the importance of serving and protecting local “good guys” like your group.
FOLLOW UP. If there are victims of hate crime, work with local crime victim advocacy organizations and tap local businesses to provide material support, from medical care and counseling, to legal advocacy and painting or repair work for graffiti or vandalism. If your activities included a focal event, such as a rally, host a subsequent de-briefing session to talk about what worked, what didn’t, what to do differently next time and to resolve any conflicts that arose between coalition members.