What should a citizen do when neo-Nazis announce that they intend to invade your town? That is the question now facing the people of Rome, Georgia. For some the initial response to the impending occupation of their quiet North Georgia community by a hate group from Michigan was to plan to hide and pray that the threat just goes away. Every schoolyard bully knows that denial and pusillanimity are powerful temptations. Fascists and white supremacists count on the paralysis that it produces. Fortunately some Romans didn’t give into the temptations of moral cowardice and instead decided to organize. Leading them is Jessie Reed, a social worker and a mother of three who is committed to an inclusive vision of her community. Practical moral leadership like that deserves attention. Reed’s frank answers to our interview questions highlight what it takes to stand up against evil and for good.
Q. What kind of reactions did you see from your fellow Romans in response to the news that neo-Nazis/white supremacists were coming to the city for their event? Were you surprised, yourself?
A. I initially was very pleased that there was a definite string, negative reaction by fellow Romans on Facebook. Brian Hill immediately set up a petition in attempt to keep the neo-Nazis out of Rome and there was a huge response. It quickly became clear that we couldn’t keep them from coming but it did establish early on that there was great opposition to the event and their ideology. Several opposition groups popped up which acted like brainstorm groups. There were all sorts of ideas for how to respond, including dressing like clowns, throwing glitter, throwing bags of feces, drowning them out with chants or music, etc. The strongest message from the traditional leadership in town was to completely ignore it and throw a party somewhere else. This frightened me as I had seen enough of the response on social media to know that people were going to show up with or without real leadership and this could lead to a very dangerous situation. I worked with Brian Hill to form a leadership group to create an organized, peaceful protest and once we revealed our plan hundreds of people jumped on board.
Q. What kind of organization has grown around the community’s response to this coming event? Does the group you are leading represent a unified counter-protest effort?
A. I reached out to Brian Hill because he had already formed the petition and brainstorm group with the most members. Brian and I were acquaintances through the local music scene. We each invited a few people to join us in a planning meeting. The group decided to meet every Tuesday to work on the plan and over time the group morphed and shifted until we ended up with a really interesting combination of community members. We have mothers, fathers, Berry students and professors, local professional, politically active young adults and a city council member.
I think that this group represents the unified counter protest. There have been many differing ideas along the way but at this point the effort is solidified and I am not aware of other protests to occur this day.
Q. Could you explain the meaning of the counterprotest event’s name, Turn Your Back on Hate?
A. I was meeting with Professor John Hickman in the very early stages of planning and he was discussing how important it was that we as individuals and a community turn our back on hate. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, I pictured how powerful it would be if instead of antagonizing them and feeding into their negativity we literally turned our backs and walked away. We will have the words, “Turn Your Back on Hate” on the front of our shirts and hearts on the back of our shirts with “Rome” on the inside. We will literally turn our backs to them and walk away, showing that love is greater than hate.
Q. What kind of strategies are you employing to keep the peace when the Turn Your Back on Hate protesters come face to face with the neo-Nazi groups?
A. We have several different strategies to keep the peace. By having everyone wear the same shirt and be silent we are introducing a disciplined and peaceful effort. A lot if the prior conflicts at events such as these, the violence and agitation seems to have stemmed from the protestors. By being well organized, we hope to prevent any unproductive antagonism from our end. We will have marshals every 3 feet charged with keeping the peace and holding everyone accountable. When protesters pick up their shirts they will sign an agreement to stay silent and peaceful. We will also have a quiet zone for people to go if they are feeling triggered. We are also setting up across the street so that there are 4 lanes of traffic between us and the rally.
Q. What do you hope this effort communicates to the people of Rome and to any media figures who may be watching?
A. I want to communicate that these racist and hateful views are not supported by our town and are not representative of who we are as Romans. I want any child of color who rides by the rally that day to see us standing in solidarity and to know that they are not alone and are loved. I also want groups like these to know that they are not welcome here in the future.
Q. How much do you think rides on the success of a counterprotest, for Rome and its community members?
A. I think a great deal rides on the counterprotest’s success. As a community, we need to demonstrate very clearly that we are not supportive of the KKK and other neo-Nazi groups or their ideology. It is important for business and the image of our city. More importantly, community members with a hateful tendency need to know that it is not acceptable and will not be tolerated, those more vulnerable community members need to know that they will be stood up for and protected, and the rest of us need to know that we are responsible for standing up for what is right. You create your reality. We can sit passively by and live in a town where hate as racism is accepted and condoned or we can take leadership and make a statement that Rome is something much bigger and better than that.