On a recent vacation to Boston, my wife and I were walking through the neighborhood of Roslindale, where we were staying, to a commuter train station to head into the city. Along the way, we came across a yard sign in three different languages — English, Spanish and Arabic — that read, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
According to a December 2016 story from NPR, the signs, which have popped up around the country, stem from a wooden sign at Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. It’s a great message from the church’s pastor, but unfortunately it is not a sentiment shared by all Americans.
That was once again apparent in the lead-up to and staging of a Sept. 14 rally in Dahlonega that was organized by white supremacists. The gathering was touted as a “pro-Trump” rally in support of the president’s re-election but was heavily promoted on white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites.
The rally’s principal organizer was Chester Doles, a Lumpkin County resident, anti-Semite and white supremacy activist who has served prison times for his activities. He attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, during which a man plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen others. Doles and other Hitlerian racists, emboldened over the last three years, want to form a coalition with mainstream conservatives and Republicans to re-elect President Trump.
One of the promotional fliers put out for the Dahlonega rally described it as “A SALUTE TO PRESIDENT TRUMP.” Listed program highlights included the playing of the national anthem, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag and an “Ole Time Family Picnic” at a local park.
“This is a family event; please bring your families to show respect and honor to OUR President,” the flyer read. I doubt Doles was so fired up about showing respect to the previous president.
There was a moment of silence scheduled for slain Hall County deputy Blane Dixon, who was killed in July by what the flyer describes as “Hispanic gangbangers,” the implication being that an entire ethnicity is responsible for the actions of four horrible people. I doubt Doles would have felt as outraged about the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was beaten and lynched by a white mob in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Nevertheless, the real message behind the rally was quite clear.
“What they really think is ‘make America white again,’” Clayton resident Josh Wagner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s real sad.”
Republican Congressman Doug Collins of Gainesville, who was listed on the flyer as an invited speaker, rightfully disavowed the event.
“White supremacy and white nationalism have no place in our country, and I will continue to denounce any and all forms of hate,” Collins said in a statement. “For that reason, I will not be attending the event in Dahlonega on September 14, which has been organized by known associates of hate organizations.”
News outlets reported a crowd of no more than 50 people showed up in support of the rally — with about three times as many counter-protesters — and the event went by peacefully, thanks in large part to a heavy presence of some 600 local and state law enforcement officers.
In an editorial in the days leading up to the rally, The Dahlonega Nugget reminded its readers that the First Amendment applies to everyone, even if there is an ugly side to the right to peacefully assemble.
The editorial’s title — “Hatred has no home here” — makes it clear where the newspaper stands, but reminds us, “If you prevent a demonstration you don’t agree with, then you lay the groundwork for preventing truly noble causes like the March on Washington and the Freedom Riders of the 1960s.”
That is true, but there is also one issue I have with the editorial.
“We’re tempted to tell all those who would spread racism they’re not allowed within our city limits,” it reads. “We’re tempted to tell all counter-protesters, who would only incite and add to the chaos, that they have to go elsewhere.”
The second part of that thought bothers me as it suggests the racist protesters and the ones protesting the racists are on some sort of equal plane. It is not a matter of inciting chaos; as long as it is done peacefully, protest against racism and injustice should be welcomed and encouraged. Many of America’s greatest heroes have been on the front lines of such protests. As the newspaper notes later in the editorial, the First Amendment “allows us to freely denounce the toxic mix of thinly veiled racism, anti-Semitism and violent posturing that taints this event.”
It is encouraging that the number of anti-rally protesters was much greater than the number of those supporting the rally in Dahlonega.
Some of those “counter-protests” came in the form of vocal chants — “Racists, sexists, anti-gay, all the Nazis go away.”
“I’m not a paid protester; I’m just a normal, average guy,” 55-year-old Michael Stark of Newnan told the AJC. Stark attended a 2018 counter-protest there of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and made the trip to Dahlonega.
“…When Nazis come to my town, a neighboring town or any town, I’m gonna be there to counter it,” he said. “Half my family died in pogroms and concentration camps, so I’m not staying home.”
There were forms of silent protest as well. According to the AJC, residents wrote messages in chalk, such as “Get Hate Off Our Streets,” on the roads around the Gold Museum. And yellow ribbons were hung outside of businesses and on street lamps and traffic signs.
It’s understandable that people would be nervous about going down to the site of the rally and that businesses would close their doors for the day, even as it would be of strong economic detriment to lose a Saturday in a touristy mountain town with the start of fall right around the corner. But they made their voices heard, too, in a different, but perhaps equally effective way.
Those forms of silent protest are a good thing, but complete, neutral silence is not a virtue.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Thankfully, the good apples in our country outnumber the bad ones. We’d all be better off if Chester Doles and those who think like him boarded a space ship and departed for a far-off galaxy. But as long as they and their mindset are around, we can’t entirely ignore them and must strongly denounce them at every turn.
Let us elevate our better voices, in whatever form they take — whether they be from Michael Stark, the merchants and residents in Dahlonega, the Mennonite pastor in Harrisonburg or the people in that Roslindale home.