The Oakland you didn't see on TV

[youtubevid id=”0MNcWUX5oU4″]You may have read the reports of how few of the vandals in Oakland CA last week came from Oakland. But what you may not have read about (or seen) were the peaceful folks who also gathered to encourage both protest and peace.

There was after-dark violence in Oakland, contained within a fairly small area, following the involuntary manslaughter verdict of transit officer Johannes Mehserle in the death of Oscar Grant, reported on TV news across the country. Oakland takes a lot of guff. There were rallies in support of Mehserle, and gatherings in remembrance of Grant, and worries because many wanted a murder conviction. Following the verdict, a crowd estimated at fewer than 1,000 gathered downtown for a peaceful demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the verdict. A small group of about 100, after the sun went down, turned to vandalism and looting. There were 78 arrests; three-quarters of those arrested were not from Oakland. It’s a sadly familiar story, especially in the way it was reported; what was reported was far from the whole story.

Interestingly, right in the middle of the troubled block is the headquarters of an organization called Not In Our Town (NIOT). “We thought it was important to set the record straight,” the NIOT folks said in an e-mail today, “by filming the encouraging community response taking place right outside our door. Here are the young people of Oakland expressing their love of this city, and their commitment to keeping the peace, no matter their reaction to the verdict.”

NIOT is a national movement that “encourages and connects people who are responding to hate and building more inclusive communities.” On their home page is a U.S. map featuring recent hate incidents (red dots) and recent anti-hate action (green dots.) The green dots outnumber the red dots, which is a heartening development to recognize, although the red dots tend to get better press.

This space is a certified member of NIOT. This space is regularly fingered as a Pollyanna. But the active (as opposed to the certified, who are often wimps) NIOT people are not Pollyannas, but courageous and simultaneously gentle souls. Check them out. You may want a NIOT in your town.

Going to hell, or going to dance — hate group meets celebration

A small but extraordinarily vitriolic hate group out of Topeka, KS visited the San Francisco Bay Area this past week, picketing a variety of targets — anything Jewish, homosexual or supportive of same seems to do. It is, in fact, hard to find many people these folks don’t hate. You are welcome to check out their website — Westboro Baptist Church — it’s just not recommended after eating.They are headed to Dallas next.

Most people simply ignored them. But groups at several local high schools and at Stanford University took the occasion of being targeted for a little creative anti-hate-group celebrating, and some of these events are chronicled on the Not In Our Town site:

Hillel at Stanford University, one of the institutions targeted Jan. 29 by Westboro, invited the entire Stanford community to stand together Friday morning “for a peaceful gathering in celebration of our diversity and our unity,” according to the invitation they emailed to students and campus groups.

“We chose to use the incident as an opportunity to align the campus around shared values and issue a call to action,” said Adina Danzig Epelman, executive director of Hillel at Stanford. Students were instructed not to engage the Phelps family in any way, and to bring signs with positive rather than negative messages.

About 1000 students  representing dozens of campus organizations, or simply themselves, along with a number of faculty and staff, showed up at 8am for 45 minutes of musical celebration, including an unexpected bagpipe player who launched into “Amazing Grace” on the front steps of the Hillel building. It was, Epelman said, “a very broad gathering, representing the diversity of our campus.”

In a message of support earlier in the week, the Hindu and Muslim co-founders of Stanford F.A.I.T.H. wrote: “If we did not stand alongside Jews, gays and lesbians, or any other group that may be maligned this Friday, we would not be the Hindus and Muslims we strive to be.”

At San Francisco’s Lowell High School, another target, the handful of picketers were met by an exuberant horde of teenagers who seemed to agree with one sign proclaiming “We’re not going to hell, we’re going to dance.” My personal favorite sign read “Jesus had two Dads;” had he been around I suspect Jesus would have been dancing.

The only gloom, in fact, was on the faces of the young picketers. They looked more wistful than hateful. It’s easy to believe they would rather be dancing too.

Gay rights, hate crimes & social justice

Can hate crimes be erased from the U.S.? Probably not. Will same-sex marriage some day become the law of the land? Probably, eventually, so.

A few blocks around the corner from the federal courthouse in San Francisco where the latest battle for marriage equality is beginning an ambitious effort to combat hate crimes through community action was also getting underway on Monday morning.

Not In Our Town (NIOT) is a national movement planning a full-scale web organizing campaign  launch on April 6. Its focus is on mobilizing citizens in response to hate crimes, but its ultimate goal is to help build communities where such crimes won’t happen. Strategies were unveiled for a group of civic and religious leaders in San Francisco as part of the pre-launch efforts.

Not In Our Town began with a PBS documentary about Billings, Montana citizens joining together to respond to a series of hate crimes in their town. The story struck a chord with audiences, and created a model that inspired viewers around the country to hold their own campaigns against intolerance. Now in its second decade, the Not In Our Town movement continues to grow. Media company nonprofit The Working Group, which produced the PBS documentary, is the force behind NIOT’s emerging web-based organizational campaign

In the audience at Monday’s meeting, which was held at the San Francisco Public Library, were San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas, Assistant District Attorney Victor Hwang (whose specific concentration is on prosecution of hate crimes), Director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services Mike Farrah and representatives of a host of community action programs such as AfroSolo — a visual and performing arts nonprofit working, among other things, to combat black-on-black crime. Plus a wide assortment of individuals from religious and community groups. The audience mix was, NIOT representatives said, typical of groups around the country from which community efforts have grown.

NIOT grassroots efforts have taken place in communities from Patchogue, NY to Ft. Collins, CO to Richmond, CA and dozens in between. If the interest shown in the San Francisco Library — while most eyes were on the courthouse around the corner — was any indication, an enthusiastic San Francisco NIOT group will join others for the April 6 launce.