When hate comes to town: Where do we go from Charlottesville?

From the First Tuesday newsletter
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When I was elected to the Michigan Legislature in 1999, I remember wondering how my ancestors would have reacted. My parents moved here with their families in the early 1920s, fleeing the pogroms in Europe. Thousands were slaughtered in anti-Jewish violence as these publicly sanctioned attacks intensified.

But my family escaped.

I’m humbled to think of what my parents endured as young children—that they were able to evade certain death and be given a chance in this country. My parents had the opportunity to work, to create a living and provide for their family, and to have their children do something that was meaningful. And then I was given a chance to make a mark by helping people living in this state. I know my ancestors would never have thought it possible for their great-granddaughter to hold a seat in government.

voices for racial justiceThat’s why watching events unfold in Charlottesville sparked such a visceral response from me. The vile behavior, the racism, the anti-Semitism and the vitriol on display made me realize what the League as an organization—and what we as human beings—are confronted with. To hear in the days following the violence that the displays were “fine” was deeply concerning. I am a proponent of free speech. But I am also the product of a people who have been decimated by violence and hate. I am sickened when I see these patterns begin to emerge again.

This is not to say that hate has been absent in our nation. Unfortunately, I think we’re getting a glimpse at what’s been out there all along. People feel emboldened by the rhetoric that has become acceptable in our country by elected officials. But I feel emboldened to fight it. Our organization has far more work to do if we’re going to tackle racial justice, social justice and economic justice issues. We have a moral imperative to continue to do the right thing on our end.

We condemn the behavior in Charlottesville, but we must go beyond printed words. We at the League will redouble our efforts to use our platform and work with our allies. As an organization and as individuals, we must be the role models so that our children see the adults around them speak out against prejudice and social injustice.

People now feel they have a license to be public about their hatred. And we have a responsibility to speak out when we see injustice. We can’t continue to say, “This is a fringe element.” We have learned in recent days and weeks that these vocal groups seek to expand and spread their hateful message. There are moments when I can’t believe what I am seeing and hearing, but in those moments I reflect on the statement that Martin Niemöller wrote in response to the rise of Nazi power in Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Fighting the kind of injustice we saw in Charlottesville is what led me to public service. And it’s what led my family to the United States. I refuse to remain silent.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs