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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Not In Our Town

Last month (October 6-8), I attended the first national Not In Our Town gathering in Bloomington, Illinois, as a member of the video crew. Many of the 100 who gathered were characters from the same documentary, meeting each other for the first time. Their stories had been woven together in a series of three documentaries about local heroes and communities who stood their ground against hate crimes and bias.

It all started in 1995 when veteran documentary-makers Patrice O’Neill and Ryan Miller went to Billings Montana to record a story of a community that stood in unison against hate after a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a Jewish child where Hannukah candles flickered in the night. Since 1993, hate activities by white supremacists in Billings had been alarming folks in the community, but also triggering collective responses of unity and compassion. KKK fliers were distributed, the Jewish cemetery was desecrated, the home of a Native American family was painted with swastikas, and threatening skinheads started standing in the back of a small African American church during its services . Thirty painters from the painters' union came after their workday to paint over the grafitti at Dawn Fast Horse's family home. People from other denominations and races came to stand at the Methodist Episcopal Wayman Chapel until the Skinheads moved on. After the brick was hurled through the Jewish child's window, the Billings Gazette ran a full page rendition of a Hannukah menorah and encouraged people to tape them to their windows. Some who taped the Menorahs in their windows received threatening calls or had their cars vandalized. This only multiplied the number who displayed the menorahs, until there were an estimated 10,000 homes with the newspaper art. From the earliest signs of hate grafitti, Police Chief Wayne Inman warned skeptical community officials to take it very seriously and mobilize community awareness. Now retired, he was one of those at the Bloomington gathering, retelling the Billings story.

Perhaps this time he was preaching to the choir, but his words scattered a new generation of seeds that will blossom into continued resolve and solidarity in communities across the country when hate rears its threatening face.

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