October 30, 2018
Last Saturday was a violent end to a devastating week, with the hate-based killing of 11 Jewish senior citizens communing at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, and two African-American senior citizens buying their groceries outside Louisville. The white man who murdered the Jewish-American victims told one of the SWAT officers that he “wanted all Jews to die,” and the white man who shot the African-American victims told a white bystander on his way out of the store, “Whites don’t shoot whites.”
I am heartbroken by the hatred that has consumed our country – hatred that is bred by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, amplified by the President, and condoned by his party. It pains me to know that so many of my Jewish friends were greeted by this horrific tragedy as they ended the Sabbath. And that my Black friends fear every day for their lives in public, from both strangers and the police. And it scares me to contemplate that this could be the harbinger of more violence to come – violence that my husband’s Jewish family and ancestors, and all survivors of the Holocaust, had hoped would never again return.
It’s hard to find hope right now when everything seems so dark. How I try to find my way back to hope again is to be with community.
The day after the shootings, I drove to Provincetown to speak on a panel about hate crimes following a performance of The Laramie Project for the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shephard’s murder. The Provincetown Theater was filled beyond capacity, including a group of students from a nearby high school. The performers were all local residents, some who had never acted before. It was the final night of the performance, and the resonance of the play with recent events was not lost on anyone.
There is a moment near the end of the first act, when a Muslim-American classmate of Matthew’s speaks at his vigil: “We need to own this crime, I feel. Everyone needs to own it.” What I heard her say was that we have a responsibility to each other for everything that happens on our watch. We hear the echoes of her words in the actions of Pittsburgh’s Muslim-American community, which has raised over $150,000 for the victims of the Tree of Life shootings.
This is why it must be our collective responsibility to repair our nation and mend the world.
We must speak out against hate each and every time it rears its ugly head above the surface of societal norms – norms that have been battered over the last two years. Silence emboldens hate, and we give tacit approval when we look away. It allows hate crimes to become even more violent and frequent.
One important way to fight back hate is to make our values public and visible. As simple as it might seem, buttons, bumper stickers, t-shirts, yard signs, Facebook and Twitter posts, your profile photo… these are all public symbols that collectively send a message to extremists that the majority of Americans believe in love over hate. When people stop seeing signs of welcoming, love, and compassion from their fellow citizens and neighbors in the public square, we take one step closer to fascism.
There is a scene in the play where Matthew’s friend, Romaine Patterson, along with other supporters, shield Matthew’s family from protests by Fred Phelps’s church, by surrounding the protesters with giant angel wings. We must all be angels today, and every day, by blocking out hate with symbols of love and compassion.
That’s also why the coming election is so important. It is not enough to vote – we must get out the vote.
Make no mistake about it – this election is a referendum on hate. If those who condone hate win, hate groups across the country will see it as a stamp of approval. And the violence will get worse. The fabric of our society cannot withstand two more years of unchecked hate.
Right now, the most effective way to set our country on a different course is to help get out the vote this coming weekend – the last before Election Day. The vast majority of Americans are fair minded and believe in love and compassion. But that means little if they don’t vote. There are 7 days left before the election, but no excuses left. We must defeat hate with everything we’ve got. Give, speak out, volunteer, vote, and get out the vote. It’s that simple.
Four months before Matthew Shepard’s death, James Byrd, Jr., an African-American man, was brutally murdered by two white men, after being dragged behind a truck for three miles on an asphalt road in Texas, severing one of his arms and his head. A month after Matthew’s murder, Rita Hester, a Black transgender woman, was murdered in Boston in an apparent hate crime, although her assailant was never found. But unlike Matthew, she didn’t receive national attention, and the local press attention she did receive disrespected who she was a woman, and as a human being. Rita Hester’s death, and the way she was treated, inspired the creation of Transgender Day of Remembrance, to honor transgender people we have lost to hate crimes, as who they are.
I was 20 years old at that time. I had recently come out of the closet, and the violence of that year terrified me. That’s what hate crimes do – they terrorize an entire community. But that is also why we must never give into fear and terror.
Toward the end of the play, Matthew’s father Dennis gives a statement at the trial of his son’s killer, against a proposed death penalty sentence. He spoke: “Matt’s beating, hospitalization, and funeral and focused world-wide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil. People have said enough is enough. I miss my son, but I am proud to be able to say he is my son.” Dennis and his wife Judy went on to become lifelong LGBTQ rights advocates, and helped pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, signed by President Obama, in 2009.
It is our responsibility to honor the legacies of Matthew, Rita, James, and those we lost this past week, by taking action to end hate-based violence. By acting, we can give hope to generations to come, like the high school students who saw The Laramie Project for the first time last Sunday, for a more compassionate future.
And it starts with November 6.