Op-Ed

How to respond if white supremacists come? Don’t ignore them

San Francisco’s rally against white supremacists was large and peaceful.
San Francisco’s rally against white supremacists was large and peaceful. Associated Press

Lexington’s response to the possibility of a demonstration by white supremacists seems to be to “stay away,” ignore them and they will be harmless and leave us alone.

This is based on the false belief that the bigots only want attention. Rather, they are really seeking normalcy. Our response must deny them any legitimacy.

Their views already have gained some support in Kentucky. See the November Herald-Leader story about the election of a white supremacist from Shepherdsville to the Kentucky House. Their ideas are a clear and present danger to our city, our democracy and our fellowship.

If we “stay away” from their demonstration they will appear as just another group with legitimate political views that deserve a hearing. We cannot allow that outcome.

How do Lexington’s well intentioned citizens stymie this attempt at achieving legitimacy? Seeking safety by “staying away” is not the answer. Boston’s and San Francisco’s recent massive citizen counter demonstrations are a better reply. To quote San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee, “What you saw today is a city that came together.”

Following these examples there are ways to express our disdain for racism:

▪ City officials should lead an effort to gather statements from every institution that stands against hate and for diversity. Such groups as the NAACP, the Democratic and Republican Parties, the city council, the Fayette County Public Schools, the highest levels of the University of Kentucky, Commerce Lexington, all the religious congregations should issue statements rejecting hate groups. Congressman Andy Barr, Mayor Jim Gray, Vice Mayor Steve Kay, our state lawmakers and all the other elected officials, where are your words to help lead us in these dangerous times? Your unifying statements can speak with many voices that express our love for each other.

▪ The city’s administration should help plan a forceful response. This response could include installing banners around our downtown statues expressing our support for diversity and our rejection of the white supremacist views. We can start a 24-hour vigil around the statues expressing support for diversity.

▪ Our authorities should come up with a plan to counter any “flash” demonstration. The city must be prepared for something like the white supremacist torchlight invasion of the University of Virginia. Lexington authorities should ban Tiki torches from any demonstration. The police must be effectively armed and trained to meet racist demonstrators armed with semi-automatic weapons and bullet-proof vests. Lexington authorities need to pledge, even to counter protestors, that violence will not be tolerated and will lead to arrest.

This was not the case in Charlottesville where a lack of police intervention contributed to the violence. Our police should be prepared to respond with a properly equipped force as soon as any flash demonstration appears. This will not be the same as responding to UK students celebrating a national championship. This time the bad guys might have clubs, shields and side arms. There might be heavily armed “militias” acting as “security.” But our authorities must not be intimidated. See the Aug. 25 story in The New York Times detailing Charlottesville’s inadequate response.

With a pledge of support and safety from city officials I think well intentioned Kentuckians will turn out for a peaceful anti-bigotry rally. This counter demonstration may include turning our backs on the bad guys or drowning them out with whistles, drums and chants. It may include standing silently. More creatively, the city could surround the bad guys with garbage trucks and other vehicles to decrease their visibility.

Our response must be a direct and forceful challenge to the bigots that their views are not legitimate in Central Kentucky and that their beliefs have no place in our city. We should not retreat to safe places to make our response to these odious threats. Citizens must feel safe to be present to speak up forcefully and nonviolently.

Jim Ryder of Lexington is a progressive activist.

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