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.