I had always been sympathetic toward the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center. As a Jew whose father’s family had been murdered during the Holocaust, and as someone on “the left” for whom the civil rights movement was a decisive moment of contemporary politics, I could not help but support organizations that monitored and opposed so-called “hate groups” like the KKK and the Aryan Nation. But these issues never engaged me deeply. The hate groups seemed utterly marginal in American life. And the question of whether or not to be against them never struck me as interesting. If asked, I would answer “of course I oppose them,” and then I would proceed to read about and talk about all the “bigger” questions—about capitalism, liberalism, democracy, civil society.
Then, in July of 1998, I woke up one morning to discover that sections of the college town in which I live—Bloomington, Indiana—had been blanketed with vicious anti-Semitic and racist literature. I was shocked, as were many of my friends and neighbors. After a number of such incidents some of us felt the need to respond in a serious way to this leafleting, which was politically revolting but also threatening to many, especially Jews and people of color, who were singled out in inflammatory ways by the leaflets. Before long an ad hoc community group called Bloomington United was formed. We ran ads in the local newspaper condemning the expressions of hate. We raised a few thousand dollars to produce cardboard signs that read “Bloomington United. No Hate Speech. No Hate Crimes. Not in our Yards. Not in our Town. Not Anywhere.” The community outpouring of support was tremendous. Thousands of signs went up all over town. We organized a march, joined by more than a thousand people, from the campus of Indiana University to the town square, where for over an hour speakers including the mayor, an African-American minister representing the United Methodist Church, the rabbi of the only synagogue in town, and representatives of the gay community and the labor movement spoke out in favor of civility and equal respect.
Bloomington United brought together leaders from the Jewish community, the gay/lesbian/transgendered community, the African-American community, and a wide range of citizens. It helped to organize study circles on race. It sought connections with the public schools. And then, on the weekend of July 4, 1999, the young man who had been distributing the neo-nazi literature—one Benjamin “August” Smith, a “representative” of the neo-nazi World Church of the Creator—went on a shooting spree that left two people dead and eleven others injured. One of those killed was a Korean graduate student at Indiana University, Won-Joon Yoon, who was shot while standing outside Bloomington’s only Korean church. The community responded with a “Gathering of Healing.” More than three thousand people attended, a standing-room-on...
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