Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

How Can We Help Our Students Process the Dangling of Antisemitic and Racist Signs from Local Bridges? It Isn’t Easy.

What We Know So Far

First the facts as we know them. Masked individuals (referred to as all male) belonging to a group who calls themselves National Social Club 131 (NSC-131) hung antisemitic and racist signs from bridges in Saugus and Danvers over the past several days. NSC-131 has claimed responsibility. It seems 10 people were involved in the actual bridge sign hangings. There has been media coverage of the events and outrage expressed from both communities and others in the area. Apparently, this is the same group that circulated antisemitic pamphlets on the North Shore over the summer.

A rally is being held today in Saugus to showcase solidarity. Danvers is planning an event of reflection and healing, and the Danvers town officials encouraged people to watch a PBS documentary on September 18th at 8:00 p.m. to increase understanding of the Holocaust. This isn’t the first or even second time there have been such incidents in the North Shore, including in school buildings.

My Questions

I have many thoughts on the recent signage over bridges in the community where I live and work. But, I also have many questions, including how can we message to our children that the behaviors of NSC-131 are repugnant and not reflective of the world in which we want to live.

Start with this question: Why were the sign hangers masked? If the idea is to voice freely one’s viewpoints (even those with whom many folks do not agree), take off the masks and own the behavior. It reminds me of folks who complain anonymously. One can speak up and out but one has to own one’s actions and the accompanying consequences. Except in rare instances (where one fears for one’s personal safety like in cases of family violence or sexual abuse), one needs to own one’s hateful sentiments. Kids need to know this.

Next question: What if we hung other banners from the same locations and more locations that recognize and honor diversity? Might we have students make banners and hang them everywhere with the help of educators, parents, local police and town officials? And, hang them unmasked? The very act of responding with banners messages far and wide — not just to drivers who see the banners as they drive under the bridges but to those making them and hanging them. The message: We do not accept racism and antisemitism; that is not behavior we are willing to condone, even with the First Amendment. Kids need to see this.

A related idea. Think about the wrapping that Christo and Jeanne-Claude accomplished. What if key bridges were wrapped (with appropriate permits of course)? Imagine the value of seeing such wrappings messaging commonality, peace, and equality.

Next question: How is it possible that ten people with masks hung banners and no one was able to see and stop them? And, even if they weren’t stopped in the first instance, couldn’t they have been stopped in the second instance? And, with all the cameras and cell phones with video, don’t we have some visible evidence of what occurred in someone’s possession? Might there be fingerprints? I get that this was “organization” sponsored but individuals were involved. Who are they and where are they hiding themselves? Kids need to know you can’t hide forever.

Next question: Let’s immediately do “pop-up” courses in our schools addressing racism and antisemitism. Sure, we can avoid politics to some extent but why aren’t we using this as a teachable moment right now? What about other signs hung in other eras? How were they handled? A good history lesson there. Who is funding groups like NSC-131? Isn’t that information that can be garnered? Who pays for the paint and canvas and pamphlets? How do the perpetrators get to the designated bridges? Kids can learn from this.

Next question: While rallies and protests are good as are events and educational opportunities, this is not a “one-off” problem. We need to recognize that there are those who believe our world should only be inhabited by those who are white. (I am reminded of work I have done with Henry Louis Gates Jr. who is, genetically, more than 60% white, a fact he shares when he speaks and writes so folks understand we are all of mixed heritage.)

How do we handle individuals and groups who hold views that are so contrary to our own values? Yes, role modeling respect for others and disrespect for those who hate and discriminate are critical but are they enough? I don’t think so. What can we do or is the answer that we can’t do much? True, there will always be folks who don’t share our values. But surely we can’t go forward just recognizing Free Speech and having symbolic moments to share our outrage.

I keep returning to education across all sectors. True, I am an educator so that is oft-times where I turn for answers. I return to art too, a multi-generational way to protest — through music and dance and visual arts of all sorts. I return to public service messaging with teeth. I return to not responding with violence or hate but with a deep abiding belief in the good will of humankind. Kids need to know there are adults who are dealing with these issues. Now.

Answers:

I don’t have them but answers often come from asking good questions, a point made poignantly by James Ryan in his book, Wait What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions.

So, let’s start asking everyone, everywhere this question: How do we respond to dangling racist and antisemitic banners on our bridges? Ask students. Ask teachers. Ask preachers and other clergy. Ask parents and grandparents. Ask leaders. Ask anyone and everyone who has breath. How do we address a society where hate is manifested so often and so offensively? How do we help insure that we leave the next generation better than we found it?

Let’s ask. Our kids deserve to know we are asking, even if we don’t have all the answers (yet or ever).

Note: Special thanks to BR for yet again sharing his thoughts with me and encouraging me to use my voice to speak up and out yet again.

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Karen Gross

Karen Gross

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor