ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s been just over three weeks since a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly when a man drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
At Ithaca College Tuesday night, moderator and educator Sean Eversley Bradwell brought together Luvelle Brown, superintendent at the Ithaca City School District, and Mayor Svante Myrick to discuss the hot button issues of race and diversity.
Brown said the news reports about the Charlottesville demonstrations only scraped the surface of what happened there.
“What I know now is…it was much worse than whatever you saw (on the news). There were shootings. There were beatings. There was bullying, things that weren’t reported. As my daddy said, there were things that happened there — like in the 1950s — that never were reported, ” Brown said.
He grew up in Charlottesville, where his parents and family members still live, and returned to the city after the demonstrations to be with family.
Brown said that while he was talking to his dad, “He put The Daily Progress (a local newspaper)…He put it in front of me and on the cover of it was the rally, pictures of the rally and folks with torches, quotes of hate.”
Brown said that as a child, his parents took him to Ku Klux Klan rallies, not to teach him to hate, but to teach him to love. The march last month in Charlottesville, though, was different because the white supremacists in attendance — members of KKK, Nazis and other groups — didn’t cover their faces as they brazenly talked to media and posed for photos.
He said that’s when he realized that local conversations about race, inclusivity and diversity need to be different. He said they need to be more challenging and push people out of comfort zones.
For Myrick, a hard conversation he’s had as mayor has been planning what will happen if something similar happens in Ithaca.
“If I put you in downtown Charlottesville right now, you might think you were in Ithaca. So it’s important that we talk about this because this could happen. And I don’t mean in a philosophical way…I mean this might happen here,” he said. “For the last coupe weeks I keep hearing people say on television and in the street, ‘Well, we need to put politics aside. Politics aside, we should condemn this Klan march.’ A Klan march is about politics.”
The KKK, he said, was originally created to keep Black people away from politics and away from the voting booth. It wasn’t a cultural statement.
With President Donald Trump’s campaign and political agenda being explicitly racist at times, Myrick said, people like the white supremacists have been emboldened to call for regressive policies about national issues, such as the possible deportation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States, and travel bans.
“I don’t think silence while other people preach hatred is tolerance. I think it is an abdication of responsibility,” Myrick said.
The local response to these issues is multi-faceted and varied.
For Myrick, he said some pro-active responses from the community can be found on the local political level by running for office, openly supporting causes and being active in the community as a volunteer or mentor.
Brown said he sees some of the solutions as being less political and more driven by education.
“Some of the things you shared, I couldn’t disagree with more,” Brown told Myrick. “When you talk about these things all being politics…I think it’s about education but it’s also about inclusive environments.”
He said the culture of Collegetowns promotes the sorting and selecting of young people for different tasks.
“I’m the leader of an educational institution that promotes racism, sorting, and selecting,” Brown said. “We can’t be anti-racist and anti-opressionist…because we are in a situation where we sort and select. Is Cornell an Ithaca Ithaca College looking to go to an open enrollment approach?”
Even beginning to dismantle those political and social systems of power requires that people begin to rethink how things are and have always been done.
He said part of that means realizing that the systems that need to be changed have been in place for decades, if not hundreds of years. And it means self-reflecting on how the system works and what can be done about it.
“If we can’t do it, nobody is goign to be able to do it, so I’m optimistic,” Brown said.