White Nationalism Still Exists, But This Mayor Believes Hate Won't Win

Photo Courtesy of Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
It's 2017, and as recent events have shown, white nationalist rallies are far from extinct. Since the violence in Charlottesville, VA two weeks ago, white nationalist groups have organized protests in Boston and Durham, NC, and several more rallies are planned for this weekend.
Seeing the violence in Charlottesville and its aftermath was disheartening for Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, IN. She told Refinery29 she doesn't expect a white nationalist rally will come to her city anytime soon (Gary's population is roughly 85% Black). Regardless, Freeman-Wilson has joined other members of the U.S. Mayors' Conference to figure out how to combat hate locally.
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One of their initiatives is The Mayors' Compact, created in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League. Some of the Compact's goals are to promote anti-bias and anti-hate education in the cities' police forces and schools, encourage community activities celebrating diversity, and ensure civil rights and hate crimes laws are enforced.
"[The initiative has] mayors coming together to say that we stand against bigotry and hatred," Freeman-Wilson, who is the first female mayor of Gary and the first Black mayor in Indiana, said.
Refinery29 talked with the mayor about Charlottesville, what she would do if a white nationalist rally came to her town, and why bigotry has no place in the United States.
What was your reaction as you saw the events in Charlottesville taking place?
"It was disheartening because you often think that we’ve come so far as a country. I’m not naive enough to think that we’re post-racial, but certainly I like to think that each person is considered to be entitled to the inalienable rights that the founding fathers of this country wrote about. But there was clearly a sentiment of [white nationalists] who were organizing [and] demonstrating that they didn’t believe that to be the case."
What you think would be the plan, and what would you do as mayor, if a white nationalist rally came to Gary?
"I would make sure that our police forces [are] prepared and equipped to address the rally, that it's properly permitted, that we do everything to ensure their right to free speech. I'm not going to say that I wouldn't permit them, because I do believe in the First Amendment.
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"I think it's highly unlikely... Well, anything is possible, so I won't even say that it's highly unlikely that they would come here. But it seems to me that they would not [come to] a community that really does promote tolerance, that promotes love. They would find it difficult to convey their message."
This is similar to what happened in Boston this past weekend when the counter-protesters outnumbered the "free speech" demonstrators.
"I think that that's really illustrative of the fact that the people who want to promote positive things far outnumber the folks who are promoting hatred, bigotry, and all of the negative sentiments. There's a handful of people – they're very vocal. But the majority of folks are enlightened."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are many white nationalist groups and active KKK chapters in Indiana. Are you aware of those groups in your community, and is there anything you plan to do?
"We've been aware of those groups for decades. They didn't just get here. Some folks think Indiana is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. They have many places where they were born.
"You want to tell people to be careful in those communities where you know that they have active involvement, but the best thing we can do in places like Gary is to really promote positive speech, promote positive activity, educate our kids against bigotry and hate, really explain why bigotry and hatred just really don't work. Never have, never will."
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What did you think of President Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville — from his reaction that Saturday to his Phoenix rally this week?
"For him to pivot so quickly to a political event was irresponsible given his responsibility as the president of this country.
"The experience from Charlottesville feels like an open wound in this country. The death of Heather Heyer and the troopers who were attempting to secure Charlottesville during that time is still a sore [wound.]"
"To come less than weeks from that event and decide to have a political rally, not in a conciliatory or an unifying way, but to really double down on things that simply tend to divide us as a country. What kind of leadership is that?"
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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