A Deputy Attorney General Reflects on the Power of NIOT
By Paul Sheridan, Deputy Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the West Virginia Attorney General's Office
"All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing."
Addressing hate crime closer to the roots is a particular challenge for law enforcement officials, because it takes them beyond their traditional roles. However, if we are to be successful, we must all make more creative use of what we have to offer this important struggle. Attorneys general, and those who work on their behalf, are well positioned to bring together diverse organizations, agencies and institutions within their states, and they are not unfamiliar with the power of rhetoric and symbolic actions.
One creative approach for developing a multifaceted assault on hate crimes can be built around the lessons presented in a documentary called "Not In Our Town." Produced by an independent media group called The Working Group, "Not In Our Town" tells the story of Billings, Montana, and how members of that community acted together in response to a spree of hate activities, including vandalism and violence. These lessons have useful implications for state level law enforcement officials.
"Not In Our Town" tells a very compelling story. When the home of a Native American family was spray painted with racist graffiti, neighbors responded with a demonstration of support for the family while a local painters union repainted the house. After an African American church service was disrupted by a hate group, a broad spectrum of community members joined them in their worship to deter further incidents. When a window in the home of a Jewish family was smashed because of a Menorah displayed in the window, thousands of town residents responded in solidarity by displaying Menorahs in their windows. In each instance, the victims felt the support of the community. Local police officials actively supported the involvement of the community. The message was effectively conveyed to the perpetrators of the hate that the people of Billings would not be divided and they would not be intimidated.
"Not In Our Town" is the story of people who stepped forward in simple but effective ways to take up for their neighbors. The story is especially inspiring because the people involved are ordinary folks, and the actions they take are the types of things that any of us could do.
"Not In Our Town" initially aired on public television stations across the country in 1994. It inspired many people who saw it, and in response to the story of Billings, communities all around the country found similar ways to send the message: "Not In Our Town." The Working Group has since made a second documentary, called "Not In Our Town II," telling the stories of some of these other communities.
There are several themes, powerfully developed in the documentaries, which are central to the "Not In Our Town" approach to hate. First, it is essential that folks respond in some way. When it comes to hate, silence is a message of acceptance to the perpetrators of hate crime. It is important for people to respond to hate in whatever form it takes. This is true whether law enforcement action is a practical option or not. Folks often overlook the options that lie between using the force of law and doing nothing at all. Both of the "Not In Our Town" videos remind us that there is a vast array of options for taking action. Edmund Burke was right: All that is necessary for the forces of evil to succeed is for enough good folks to do nothing. Our communities and our states are full of good folks, but we must act.
It is especially helpful if public officials are among those willing to speak out. Billings Police Chief Wayne Inman made this point in the first of the two documentaries. "If a police chief doesn't take a visible and active role, then the assumption is everything is all right. And these hate groups have learned from experience that if a community doesn't respond, then the community accepts. Silence is acceptance to them."
The second point is that meaningful response is possible and it can be accomplished by ordinary citizens. Collective action can be especially effective. It can be an antidote to the isolating effects of hate violence and intimidation. Describing the impact when other Billings community members joined his parishioners in order to deter Skinhead disruption of his services, the Reverend Bob Freeman said, "We let them know if you bite one of us, you bite us all."
The third point relates to the obstacle to community action; that is, that good people are typically and understandably reluctant to get involved. But as powerful as the reluctance is, as strong as the inertia can be, ordinary citizens who would otherwise stand on the sidelines can be moved to action if someone calls on them. In "Not In Our Town," the Reverend Keith Torney speaks to both this inertia and to the possibility of overcoming it. "It was very important that we act on it, talk about it, do something about it, and not just say, 'Oh well, that's a different group of people.' There is great goodness in the world," he said, "but we need permission, and ways, to reach out." Gary Modie, a member of the painters union in Billings, also speaks to this inertia, and his own involvement testifies to the possibility of overcoming it. "I end up standing on the sidelines too much. I would feel something, but I never really did a lot . . . about anything. I was really glad to help paint the house, and more so, to convey a message to these guys that the community will not stand for that."
This leads to the fourth point, which is that folks can be called to action. Active encouragement by leaders in the community, including public officials, can be a critical element in moving folks to action. Instead of simply assuring the public that the problem is under control, public officials can solicit the help of institutions, organizations and just regular folks. Public officials in general, and attorneys general in particular, can make an important contribution by being visibly identified with the struggle against hate and by helping to give ordinary citizens "permission and ways to reach out."
Recognizing the power of the stories they were telling, The Working Group has built a campaign around these documentaries and has some very good materials available. The campaign is designed to encourage local communities, working through local institutions such as newspapers, churches, labor unions, community organizations, business groups, local governments, local law enforcement and others, to find creative ways of sending the positive signal that hate violence and intimidation will not be tolerated and that those who are targeted by hate crimes, or stand up against hate crimes, will not be alone.
The "Not In Our Town" documentaries and the campaign packet relate most specifically to community level action, and this is where the action can be most effective. However, the call for community action can come, and should come, from the state level as well. Accordingly, they offer a message and an approach which can be adopted by state level law enforcement officials. If, as the documentaries point out, people often need to be asked before they will step forward, state leaders, particularly attorneys general and others who are responsible for defending rights within the state, are in a good position to do the asking. This type of action is not a substitute for law enforcement; on the other hand, it is action directed at the root of hate crime, at a level of the problem that cannot be effectively reached by traditional law enforcement approaches.
At least two state attorneys general have been influenced by the story of Billings in their approach to hate violence in their states. On February 21, 1997, Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, with a broad coalition of state civil rights leaders, launched a "Not In Our State" campaign in Arizona. On May 1, 1997, West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw joined with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission in announcing a "Not In Our Town, Not In Our State" campaign. In the proclamation which declared the campaign, they called "upon the communities of this state to take a stand against hate and intolerance and to act collectively, creatively and decisively against hate and intolerance."
These state level "calls to action" can have an effect at the community level in communities throughout the state. Some effects are already apparent in West Virginia. Most notable was the success folks in Huntington, West Virginia had in dealing with a Klan rally. In this town, the Klan’s effort to divide the community with hate and fear was turned on its head.
Initial opposition to the Klan by Huntington city officials and other leaders was moving in the direction of refusing the Klan permits to assemble. This strategy was destined to fail legally, and would have set the stage for a Klan public relations victory and the demoralization of those in the community who wanted to publicly reject the Klan's hateful message. However, in answer to the call to action by the West Virginia Attorney General and the State Human Rights Commission, and with the use of the "Not In Our Town" documentaries and campaign materials, community leaders refocused their efforts in more creative directions. The community organized a Unity Rally in which the citizens of Huntington affirmed and celebrated their diversity. That event upstaged the Klan demonstration, and the Unity Rally has since become an annual event.
By speaking out, citizens can define their community as a place where differences are celebrated and tactics based on fear or violence are not tolerated. This is "action" which shifts the climate of a community and strikes hate at the root. This type of action can be precipitated by the encouragement of law enforcement officials at the local and at the state level.
President Clinton, in a June 7, 1997, radio broadcast, called the problem of hate crime "one of America's greatest challenges and greatest opportunities." The challenge is obvious enough. Hate crime represents a serious and persistent contradiction to the basic principles of our democracy. The opportunity is less obvious. But the stories told in "Not In Our Town" help reveal this opportunity. By taking advantage of these opportunities, and calling on others to do the same, "activists" of all kinds, from attorneys general to ordinary citizens, can engage in creative strategies which effectively respond to hate crime.
This piece is a revised version of an article, which appeared in the Summer, 1997 issue of Civil Rights Update, a publication of the National Association of Attorneys General.
Paul Sheridan is Deputy Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the West Virginia Attorney General's Office. As a member of the Civil Rights Division, he has litigated discrimination and harassment cases since October 1990. In 1992, Sheridan organized the West Virginia Hate Crime Task Force, and served as its coordinator for 10 years. He is currently a task force member, as well as a member of the West Virginia Holocaust Education Commission. He has provided training and advice on effective responses to bias crime to police officers, prosecutors, educators and community leaders all over West Virginia. Sheridan has also assisted in the development of training and resource material on hate crime for the United States Department of Justice, and the United States Department of Education. He was a participant in the 1997 White House Conference on Hate Crime and served as a member of the National Association of Attorneys General Bias Crime Task Force from 1997 to 2000.