Guest Column: It Will Take More Than Resolutions to Respond To Racism. Actions Must Follow Words

The following was sent to the Bloomingtonian and reflects the views of the author:

By David Henry – Chair, Monroe County Democratic Party

It Will Take More Than Resolutions to Respond To Racism. Actions Must Follow Words.

Last week, during the regular meeting of the Bloomington Common Council, we witnessed a shocking display of racist and anti-Semitic verbal assaults in public comments as the Council deliberated on their cease-fire resolution for Hamas and Israel. Given the ongoing challenges our community has faced however, particularly in the Age of Trump, it is unsurprising that such violent hate speech is in the public sphere. After years of “Zoom bombing” and disruptions in virtual and in-person meetings, from school boards to farmers’ markets to public protests across Indiana, any effort to confront the issues involving the marginalized has become irresistible to racists in our time.

Hate has no place in Bloomington, online, or anywhere else, and it is our minimal obligation to make this clear. Those of us in positions of trust or leadership within the community have an even greater responsibility to speak out. However, it is crucial to move beyond mere words and actually lead, rather than getting bogged down in philosophical debates about free speech in an increasingly violent civil society.

As the chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party, I express my own opinions today, and without seeking approval from my committee. Whether these views are shared or debated within the party organization, or among voters or current candidates through group texts, online platforms or in public, is not my concern at this moment. This moment is bigger than all of that and requires our focus and attention.

Despite the desire for involvement in international affairs and the urge to express global citizenship, we must not forget our responsibilities as citizens of Bloomington, Indiana. We face numerous challenges and biases here at home and within our own community, including incidents of targeted political violence, bias against foreign students, and daily instances of bigotry based on race, gender, faith, or social class.

Using broad strokes to paint complex issues benefits no one. The current atmosphere of heightened emotions and tensions creates conditions reminiscent of the summer of 2019 when white supremacy was on the rise in Bloomington, taking advantage of community divisions and emotions. This is not to judge the moral imperative or verbiage of the resolution, or the good intentions of its authors and supporters to craft a statement that focuses on humanitarianism, but to say that the road to this particular Hell is paved in good intentions.

We must also directly acknowledge that members of our Black, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Asian, Indigenous People, LGBTQIA+ community, and persons with disabilities were exposed to violent rhetoric espoused by modern White Supremacists in real-time. Our elected officials, staff, and the public – especially those who are from historically marginalized communities – were subjected to hate speech during the meeting, with procedural limitations seemingly hindering immediate action. Citizens attending for routine business were blindsided by hateful remarks, leaving them to question the values and culture of the institutions they belong to.

As a community, we must strike a balance between safety and freedom, and consider whether we should tolerate hate speech propagated by armchair Aryans, nightgown Nazis, and serious supremacists from the comfort of their homes and smartphones. Moving towards anti-racism requires solidarity and learning from such incidents. Rather than dwelling on past events and hindsight judgements, I urge us to focus on actionable steps we can take to uphold our commitment to being a progressive community.

First, the era of passive digital citizenship through Zoom should come to an end now that we are no longer in a pandemic. Digital platforms should not serve as conduits for hate speech, readily accessible with a click from anywhere in the world. Being here means being here. If individuals wish to make such comments, they should do so in person, facing the community directly with their name attached, and reap the whirlwind. We are under absolutely no obligation to hold a digital door wide open for trolls to enter, and distort local deliberations.

For our community, Public Access TV and live streaming ensure transparency. City Hall is ADA accessible. Inconvenience, such as having a cold or flu, is not a valid reason to demand remote accessibility when email correspondence can suffice. If daycare poses an obstacle to attending public meetings, perhaps we should pursue daycare accommodations onsite. The safety of elected officials and the public must be prioritized.

Second, in my role as the chair of my party these past years, I have put on a public clinic in parliamentary procedure as we navigated caucuses and election board hearings.  Yet I also recognize George Orwell’s injunction to break rules that are barbarous. We must be willing to break such rules to denounce hate speech when we encounter it and risk a gavelling down. If our inner voice feels silenced by hate speech, violating customary decorum to confront it should not be a source of shame. Even suspending rules to address the issue on the spot should become a norm and not an exception.

Solutions aside, the undeniable fact remains that racism was on full display in our town last week. Addressing racism requires more than resolutions; it demands a concerted effort to confront the rise of fascism and navigate existing biases within our community. Both historical lessons and contemporary training on diversity, equity, and inclusion should guide our efforts to improve.

Speaking personally, I am so very sorry and want my friends and neighbors who were targeted last Wednesday to know I see your pain. Our next steps must focus not only on healing but also on resolving to combat anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry in all their forms. I commit to redoubling my efforts, and I hope we all do the same.

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