Local faith leaders and politicians at the Washington Hebrew Congregation
Local faith leaders and politicians at the Washington Hebrew Congregation Credit: KELYN SOONG

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Politicians, faith leaders, advocacy group members, and experts on racial extremist groups gathered Friday in a town hall meeting and interfaith vigil to condemn the white nationalists that are planning to host a rally in D.C. near the White House on Sunday.

Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Jamie Raskin (MD-8) co-hosted the event at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, which drew hundreds of people from the local community looking for answers on how to respond to the rally and march organized by far right members this weekend.

“We look for opportunities like this to make the positive statement that we value diversity and that we celebrate tolerance and condemn bigotry in all of its forms,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, one of the speakers at the press conference with several religious leaders prior to the town hall meeting.

On Thursday, the National Parks Service approved “Unite the Right” rally organizer Jason Kessler’s application to host the demonstration this weekend on the one-year anniversary of the violent “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that included members of the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan. That rally resulted in several injuries and the death of counter protestor, Heather Heyer, when a man who espoused white supremacist beliefs drove his car into a crowd.

Several counter-protests are also scheduled around the city on Sunday.

“I call it the pre-emptive event,” Norton told City Paper. “We’re pre-empting the racists by holding something before they get a chance. They’re not used to that. They’re used to us responding. …We haven’t pre-empted them in the sense that they said, ‘Well, we won’t go there,’ but we have pre-empted their message.” 

Organizers billed Friday’s event, which lasted nearly five hours, as a “teach-in on white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism and the neo-Nazi movement,” and about a dozen faith leaders stood together in solidarity before the town hall meeting.

“Look around, this is what is right about America,” said Dr. Rajwant Singh of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education at the press conference as leaders of other faith organizations surrounded him. “America is not diluted by diversity, it becomes dilated.”

Afterward the religious leaders posed for a photo. Standing among them were Mendelson, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman.

“We will uphold everyone’s First Amendment rights, but it’s my belief hate has no place in the District of Columbia,” Silverman told City Paper. “And I’ve worked with many of the faith leaders in this room to make sure that the District is a welcoming city, and a city that certainly embraces its diversity.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, far right, and Jamie Raskin, second from right, with panelists Credit: KELYN SOONG

In his opening remarks during the town hall, Raskin called the white nationalists, “skinheads” and “preppy fascists,” and used his time to emphasize the importance of diversity in America.

He called Norton, who is in her 14th term as the Congresswoman for the District of Columbia, “my friend and beloved colleague … the veteran hero of the modern civil rights movement.”

“Our focus today is on community and national resiliency in the face of resurgent racism,” Raskin said to a standing ovation.

Charlottesville Vice Mayor Dr. Wes Bellamy and representatives of what the event called the “leading experts on the problem of violent white supremacy,” like Leonard Zeskind, a MacArthur Fellow and founder of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, spoke at the event. Also in attendance were Randy Blazak of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, Lecia Brooks, the outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Monica Hopkins, the executive director of the ACLU of Washington, D.C., and Tony McAleer, a former neo-Nazi and the executive director of Life After Hate, a non-profit that helps people leave extremist groups.

Brooks reminded the audience, which filled out most of the bottom section of the Kaufman Sanctuary, that white nationalism is not anything new.

Bellamy and Blazak encouraged the crowd to recognize every-day racism, no matter how subtle.

“I want people to stop saying, ‘I’m not racist.’ …Because that’s not what a person who is not racist would do,” Blazak said, drawing laughs. “Donald Trump has said, ‘I’m the least racist person ever.’ Did he mean on earth, in all history, in his mind? I don’t know, but I do know the least racist person would not say that. What the least racist person would say is, ‘I’m a racist. …I’ve internalized this racism. I’ve seen it over all TV. I’ve internalized all this hatred, but I’m working on it.”

McAleer started his remarks by asking the audience to raise their hands if they felt more racism today than a couple years. About half of the hands went up. He followed it by telling the crowd to keep their hands up “if you feel the situation is hopeless.” Most of the hands went down, but a few in the front row stayed up.

“I think we’re all here today, myself in particular, because it’s not hopeless,” said McAleer, who was involved in the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance in the 1980s.

But it was the keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. WilliamJ. BarberII, a well-known protestant minister from North Carolina and the president of the Repairers of the Breach non-profit, that received the loudest cheers of the evening.

In his 42-minute sermon, Barber spoke at length about Trump (“We can’t just blame Trump. …That just gives him too much power.”), voter suppression (“I don’t know what Russia did, but I do know what voter suppression did.”), and the “insanity” of racism. He called out politicians like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan for supporting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“It has never been just responding to the marchers and the rallies and the KKK, and saying, ‘That’s racism,’” Barber said. “You can’t wait until the next march or the next slip to deal with systemic and policy racism. To do that is to mis-teach the American public what white nationalism and racism is.”

“If they want to unite, let us unite what is right: justice is right, let us unite around there, unity is right, love is right,” said Barber, taking back the word “right,” his voice raising with each sentence. “Systematically dismantling racism and poverty and ecological devastation and the war economy and militarization is right. Taking on the false narrative of religious nationalism that says some people don’t matter and others matter, that’s what is right. So let us unite what is right, a commitment to what they said during the Civil Rights movement. The right time to do right is always right now!”

The audience, which included 15-year-old Mike Minsk of Silver Spring, gave Barber a lengthy standing ovation.

“The last year and half, I just can’t describe it,” Minsk said. “I hoped to make a difference by coming here. I think an event like this is very important. The more events like these, the more attention there is, and the more change will happen.”