What makes people join neo-Nazi groups? Why do they want to purify the American northwest? What is it about us, normal, everyday folk, that lets us be selective about the causes we support and the oppression we resist?Isn’t one injustice the same as the next? When will the media stop classifying crimes according to colour, creed, ethnicity – isn’t a crime a crime no matter the pedigree of the perpetrator?
On Monday last, I attended a symposium at the Central European University where filmmaker Patrice O’Neill, founder of the Not in our Town movement spoke about a PBS documentary she made back in 1995 in Billings, Montana. The townspeople, faced with racial attacks on Jews and Native Americans, banded together and spoke with one voice telling local neo-Nazi groups that they would not tolerate hate crimes in their town. This act of solidarity was a catalyst for similar actions across the United States, and indeed all over the world. The success of the people of Billings prompted others to stand firm and say No! You bite one, you bite us all.
NIOT’s mission is to guide, support and inspire people and communities to work together to stop hate and build safe, inclusive environments for all. In Hungary under the sponsorship of CEU’s Center for Media and Communication and the US Embassy, with Hungarian translation provided by the Embassy of Norway, O’Neill’s presentation was shown in the face of what Norwegian Ambassador Tove Skarstein called ‘a burning challenge for Europe’ – Roma inclusion. Her visit will also include a trip to the Police Secondary School in Miskolc, and to the University there, and to the teacher training college in Nyiregyhaza.
The Hungarian government was represented by Dr Zóltán Kovács, Secretary of State for Social Inclusion, Ministry of Human Resources. He spoke of Roma inclusion as something that has been ‘put aside […] not dealt with’ for the last 20 years. He also referred to Hungary’s role in developing an inclusion strategy for the EU and the move to legislate for social inclusion at home. I found this hard to take seriously, particularly in light of the Parliament’s recent approval of a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to make living on the streets illegal. One has to wonder how social inclusion is defined.
O’Neill described herself not as an expert, but rather a ‘story carrier’ and indeed NIOT is a film that has a lot to say, even 18 years after the fact. In it, then Police Chief Wayne Inman talks of silence being akin to acceptance. When a Native American’s woman’s house was vandalised with swastikas and hate slogans, the local painters union came to her aid to cover the damage. One painter pointed out that her kids were old enough to read, but not old enough to understand and while they could paint the house and cover the damage, nothing could paint over the kids’ memory.
After watching the 30-minute documentary, audience members were asked to turn to those next to them and share which person they identified with most in the film. For me, it was the painter who said that for years he’d stood on the sideline and not done anything; but now he was standing up for what he believed to be right. I’m relatively new to activism – so new in fact that I’m still teetering on the first syllable. But I do know right from wrong, rational from irrational. And I have all but given up trying to understand antisemitism.
I was rather surprised this weekend to be asked why I wasn’t racist. I was in conversation with someone I hope will become a good friend – an American Jew of Polish ancestry who is working hard in Hungary to enable inclusiveness, not only for Roma, but also for Jews. She asked me how many Jews I know and I had to think a while. I know three… now. Perhaps more, but three that I’m sure of. That, too, gave me pause for thought. It’s not something I ask of anyone. And I was amused at one intervention during the symposium, from a Roma woman who spoke of a gay friend wanting to confess something to her. She said – hey, I’m Roma and I know you’re gay – what more is there to confess? But as a teen, he’d been a member of a skinhead group. His reason? He simply wanted to belong.
Good parenting and good education are two powerful weapons against racism and intolerance. A third is good example, as another intervention recounted. It’s not enough to stand by and do nothing. Speaking up and saying how such talk/action/behaviour offends you and that you’d rather it stop, is just one small step yet if enough people take that step, then it can have a huge ripple effect – just look at NIOT and what people and communities all over the world are accomplishing in its name.
There is talk of establishing tolerance towns in Hungary, where all society can co-exist, peacefully, without fear or hatred. There were a number of mayors present in the audience on Monday night, and admittedly, their interventions were subject to translation so I can’t repeat the intent with certainty – yet when I hear of Roma being talked about as ‘them’ and ‘they’, I want to scream. As one activist said: give us our names as it’s the faceless mass that gives rise to racism.
More on this as the project unfolds.