Apr. 28th, 2017

eilonwy2017: (Default)
Quick background for those who don't know: I am a Yankee who has lived in 5 states, become over-educated, and is currently living, somewhat under duress in Appalachia.

A few months ago, the traditional workers party declared that they were going to rally in Pikeville, KY (the town I currently live, work and teach in) to give training seminars and recruit new members. Their reasoning was that because this area is overwhelmingly white, poor, and voted for trump, that they'd have an easy time gaining new followers and support. (To give you an idea of the area, I routinely have students admit to me that they had never seen someone who wasn't white until they came to college. There are students of color at the university in which I teach, but they are almost uniformly recruited as athletes from other areas of the country.)

As you can imagine, some people were upset about learning nazis were invading, and a med school student and a high school student stepped up to the plate like heroes and put together two rallies for unity and diversity and equality and peace. (Each rally has a long title that I can't remember, so I'll lump them both together as "diversity rallies" for this post.) There was meant to be a rally tomorrow (Friday) in Floyd County, and one Saturday in Pikeville, because those were the two areas in which the nazis declared they'd be demonstrating.

(Yes, I know that some twp people wouldn't call themselves nazis. I don't care, at least for this post. If it talks like a nazi and acts like a nazi...)

The diversity rallies very specifically said that they appreciated the general support of outsiders but requested that no outside groups come into the area, that they wanted this to be community based, a celebration of the people who live and work here. They invited veterans, politicians (from the spectrum), religious figures, and planned a really good looking schedule of events for Saturday. (I know more about Saturday's than Friday's, although I expect that Friday's would have been great, too.)

Because the nazis plan to demonstrate downtown at the courthouse, the diversity rally planners wanted to gather and celebrate peace and unity at the park about 300 yards away. Some city officials got nervous about this and my university agreed (I suspect somewhat under duress) to host the diversity rally on Saturday instead. The university is significantly farther from the courthouse and up a large hill-- the high ground, you might say. This was never, however, really a university event.

Many of us were truly hoping that the nazis would turn out to be three guys in a pickup truck and a confederate flag driving through town a couple times, but social media and such have definitely escalated the situation. Several anti-racist/anti-fascist but pro-violence groups have now also declared their intent to come into town on Saturday. (Some are already here, according to colleagues who know.) Their websites and online rhetoric suggest a plan for violence and for destruction. The city passed an emergency measure to ban hoodies and masks in response. Apparently these groups are the same ones (or branches of) that were causing destruction and violence in Berkeley.

Let me state for the record that while I am anti-fascism, because duh, I'm also anti-violence. But I'm really super anti-nazi. So it's been upsetting me that the nazis got barely an eyebrow raise and the anti-fascist groups are getting "oh god, lock up your children, get off the street." I get that the reasoning is, apparently, because the nazi group gets right up to the legal line and dares the other people to cross it.

I also get the university's lack of enthusiasm because I assume they fear reprisals, lawsuits, danger.

I don't know how bad things might get Saturday. The university president has told us that there will be regular cops (we only have 21), state troops, and homeland security in town. There will be, and I can't believe I'm typing this, snipers on the roofs of the downtown buildings. Expectation from the various security groups talking, is 600 outsiders arriving to demonstrate and/or make trouble. I don't know where that number comes from (beyond the chief of university security). But to put it in perspective, if true, that's 10% the population of the town. (Pikeville is 6000 people, roughly, and much of that spread out.) So yeah, people coming to town, looking for trouble, it could be bad.

I'm not suggesting that we, as academics, encourage our students to go looking for more trouble or danger or violence. But I'm still incredibly disappointed in my university, my adopted community, and my colleagues. (Not all of them, I should clarify.)

I can't help but think back to my own undergraduate days. I wasn't particularly well informed on current events when I got to MHC, age 17, but I was quickly involved in things. I marched in my first protest my first semester. I was already enraged about gender inequality when I got to MHC; I quickly started to understand intersectionality (even though I didn't have that word til much, much later), mainly by thinking critically and being aware of the world and people around me. Even if MHC were not in a more liberal area (MA), I still cannot believe that something like this would happen anywhere near that campus. I cannot imagine the faculty not making a stand-- with university support.

The university here? Has canceled the diversity rally. (I don't know who actually decided to cancel it, since the verbiage I've seen in emails and on social media has been vague. But hearing the university president in a meeting today makes me think pressure came from the university.) Obviously they've cited safety concerns.

Judging from what I've seen on both sides of the fence's social media sites, yeah, I think both sides are looking to start trouble. Yeah, both sides are pointing out that KY is open-carry and stand-your-ground. Yeah, I think someone could be an idiot on Saturday in downtown and get hurt.

But I think not supporting the diversity rally is a mistake. Where is the demonstration that this community doesn't want nazis here? The same thing that got us to this point (ignorance, reluctance to talk about let alone deal with the systemic and institutionalized prejudices and racism in this community and country) continue to fester, conversation quelled by fear and a reluctance to do the heavy ideological lifting.

The rhetoric I've heard from colleagues lately has been "nazis? meh. but anti-fascists? run for the hills!" Again, let me reiterate, I'm not advocating violence. But where is the condemnation of the twp and what they stand for? Where is the soul-searching to understand what brought them here? Where is the demonstration that they're not wanted here?

I know I just wrote a very long post, so it's ironic that in closing I'm writing "I can't put into words what I'm feeling right now about all this," and yet it's true. It's taken me all day to be able to articulate even this much. (For all my anti-violence, I did stupidly kick a wall and hurt my foot over this... Well, we make mistakes.)

My instinct is to move away-- I've been wanting to for a while and November 9th clarified that for me-- but in some ways I'd be doing the same thing: shutting up, ignoring the problem, sweeping nazis under the rug.* So let this be a call to action to myself, too, to be braver, to stand up, to bring up the tough questions in class.

(The title of this post comes from the fact that last weekend was Hillbilly Days, the area's biggest festival and the first thing that comes up in search engines if you look up Pikeville. It's supposed to be a reclamation of the idea of hillbillies but frankly what I've seen makes it look like it's mainly a reification of harmful stereotypes. When getting some dates confused earlier in the semester, I realized that April here this year is basically hillbillies and nazis. Ergo, title.)

*and rug nazis might be even harder to remove than ordinary ones.
eilonwy2017: (Default)
What set me off yesterday, I think, was the glibness of conversation happening around the twp/nazis invading Pikeville and how my colleagues were ignoring that, and yet rushing to talk about safety concerns due to antifa/ara. I sat there in the faculty meeting, arms crossed, realizing my body language was getting more and more defensive but just so angry that I couldn't bring myself to care.

I know being angry all day / kicking a wall due to "presidential glibness" is overreaction. Please see my previous post to see my struggle to articulate the event.

Anyway, to follow up, the university president has posted the following on our website and it is MUCH more evenhanded and better in tone and reassuring about not welcoming (or ignoring) the kinds of ideology that brings the twp here. (I ... don't know how to make an LJ-cut, 'cuz this isn't LJ. Sorry.... Stop reading here if you're not interested and visit me for my next post...)

from the university president...
When my wife and I moved to Pikeville, Kentucky, we were immediately impressed with the kindness and hospitality of the people who call this region of the country home. Our little town is warm, safe, and has a charm that one would expect from a village nestled in the mountains on the edge of the south. Our university has been in this place for more than 125 years. We are blessed with caring, expert faculty in the arts and sciences, humanities and professions. Our medical school is exceptional and our new optometry college is highly innovative. Our university is diverse and welcoming. We have students, faculty and staff from across the country and around the world. Faces of all colors walk our streets, work in the local hospital and study on our hilly campus. We love it here.

It now appears obvious that this weekend we will be invaded by people who want to bring hatred, fear, and violence to our part of the world.

By now, you have probably heard about the rally sponsored by the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP) that is scheduled for this Saturday in downtown Pikeville. They were not invited to our town and are not welcome on our campus. They chose to visit Pikeville for their own reasons, contacted the city, and were granted the right to assemble in our courthouse square. Groups of all sorts come to this same location in Pikeville. The city does its best to provide a safe place for free speech to occur, regardless of the political agenda. According to several reputable sources, the TWP is a Neo-Nazi organization that has a strong racist platform. If you have doubts about the truth of that statement, look them up online. Though violence tends to follow this group, they seem to be expert in provoking rather than being violent.

As a university founded by Presbyterian ministers, we have worked hard to build and maintain a tradition of a hospitality toward everyone, therefore, we utterly reject racism in all of its forms.

In fact, one of our students partnered with another student from the region to create a counter protest. They contacted the city and reserved the city park for their event. The Rally for Equality and American Values (REAV), was to be a family friendly alternative located just a few blocks from the TWP rally. They gathered significant financial support and had generated significant enthusiasm in the community. The hope was to have an event that would show the true spirit of Pikeville - family, equality, and peace - as a contrast to the rally at the courthouse.

There were some concerns for safety. Would the TWP leave the courthouse and walk the five blocks to the park? Would a shouting match ensue? At a meeting between the organizers for the REAV and myself, we determined that if they moved to our campus we could help them increase the distance from the TWP. While the REAV was never an official university event, it did closely align with our mission and values.

Over the last week or so, it has become apparent that at least two other groups are now planning to come to Pikeville. Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and Anti-Fascist Action (ANTIFA) have both made it known that they plan to send contingents to Pikeville this weekend to protest against the TWP. At first glance, it might appear that these two groups would be more closely aligned with the REAV and university positions, but you must look deeper. These two groups are vehemently opposed to the TWP, but their tendency to incite violence causes me grave concern. Review their history online and you will discover that their form of confrontation is usually not peaceful.

As a university founded by Presbyterian ministers we have worked hard to build and maintain a tradition of a hospitality toward everyone, therefore, we utterly reject violence. Indeed, racism is a form of violence that is insidious.

This week, in meetings with city officials, law enforcement, and others whose job is to watch these kinds of events we have come to the conclusion that the presence of the TWP, ARA, and ANTIFA in downtown Pikeville presents a real danger to the peace of our town. The likelihood of a violent conflict between these groups is too significant to ignore. When presented with this information, organizers of the peaceful, family oriented REAV gathering on our campus determined it was in the best interest of safety to postpone their event.

If you have ever been to Pikeville, you would understand. We have limited parking here because we live in a narrow valley. It is impossible to keep crowds separated when there are large events that occur simultaneously. The risk posed by bringing peace-loving families into the same parking garage with the TWP, ARA, and ANTIFA was simply too great.

The university agrees with the decision to postpone the Rally for Equality and American Values. We think it was the right decision for this day, but we wholeheartedly support their goal. We hope that in the weeks to come we can work to bring a peaceful event to our region that celebrates our diversity and upholds our values.

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