Each of us needs to speak out if we see the rights of another trampled

We watched a video of Saturday’s KKK rally in Roxboro, North Carolina. It was posted on the website of The Telegraph, a British newspaper that headlined the story “Ku Klux Klan supporters give Nazi salute at North Carolina rally in support of Donald Trump.”

At 3 p.m., a convoy of 30 vehicles — many flying Confederate flags — rolled through the town’s main street.

At the same time, we were covering a rally in Albany, held to coincide with the Roxboro rally and counter what organizers called a “KKK presidency.”

Those rallying in Albany weren’t cruising through as nameless faces in a convoy. They were listening thoughtfully to speeches and marching in the cold from one Albany park to another.

They weren’t reluctant to give a reporter their names. Many held handmade signs, not the kind of pre-printed signs handed out before rallies to look good on news reports.

Two young girls — Abby and Bella Scaringe — proudly displayed the signs they’d made from flattened cardboard boxes. “Peace on Earth” and “Love Forever” their signs said, illuminated with colored rainbows and hearts.

Another kid held a cardboard sign that said, in letters carefully printed in crayon, “Mr. Trump, please be nice to others.”

Children are taught such simple lessons because they make for a civilized society, a place where different kinds of people can live in peace.

The Loyal White Knights organizing the Roxboro rally, one of many splintered Klan factions, did not return our calls as we sought to understand their reasons for holding it. The message on the group’s answering machine won’t be printed here. It is, in a word, deplorable.

We last wrote about the KKK a year and a half ago because the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes and hate groups across the country, put Altamont on its map as having a KKK cell. State and local law enforcement agencies said there was none. In researching the story, we discovered the KKK was an organization in tatters. (See April 9, 2015 editorial at AltamontEnterprise.com.) Since Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked a rise in hate crimes.

By contrast, organizers of the Albany rally returned calls and were eager to talk about why they were holding it. One of the organizers, Fazana Saleem-Ismail, lives in Guilderland. We first wrote about her because she gives birthday parties for homeless children.

Despite being busy as a research scientist and the mother of two children, she makes time for this because she believes all children should feel like stars for the day in the way her own children do. She does it as part of the charity her religion requires. She is a Muslim.

We next came across Saleem-Ismail when she organized a panel of Muslim women at the Guilderland Public Library to explain their religion. At that session, she displayed for the crowd a book her daughter had made when she was in second grade, describing the celebration of Ramadan. When the 7-year-old came home from school that day, “She was sad. Nobody had clapped for her” the way they had for her classmates who had shared their traditions of Christmas and Hanukah.

Three years later, at age 10, Saleem-Ismail’s daughter told her why she had been so sad that day. One of her classmates had asked her, “Are your parents bad? Do they do bad things?”

Near the end of the two-hour library session, Saleem-Ismail revealed that her daughter and the boy are now friends. “He knows who I am,” her daughter said.

She is a flesh and blood person to him, not an evil stereotype.

Saleem-Ismail grew up on Staten Island, describing herself on college applications as a Muslim girl who worked at a Jewish community center and went to Catholic school. Her Muslim parents were immigrants from Sri Lanka.

“My parents came to this country in the 1970s, pre-9/11,” she said this week. Her father is a doctor. “In the early seventies, they needed more physicians here and heavily recruited doctors from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India.”

Sri Lanka was a place where her parents, as Muslims, were in the minority. Buddhists predominate followed by Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Her parents spoke English, she said, and her mother doesn’t wear a hijab, or headscarf.

“Back then, there was no big Muslim community. They had to interact with other people,” said Saleem-Ismail of her family coming to America.

Although Staten Island at that time was largely occupied by middle-class whites, “They were accepted,” she said of her parents. They knew how to fit in and contribute to their new community.

This doesn’t mean they were entirely welcomed with open arms. One story Saleem-Ismail remembers is that, when her parents were ready to buy a house, “The seller didn’t want to sell to the brown couple.”

Saleem-Ismail remembers when she was in seventh grade, her class held a mock presidential election “Everybody in the class voted Republican except the four South Asians,” she said.

Still, she felt accepted and never experienced bullying. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks, though, she found “a shift toward Muslims in general.”

At the time, she was working for the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City, which gives grants to alleviate poverty. “We had a concert for New York City to raise money for families affected,” she recalls. “Speakers in the audience said scary things about Muslims, like ‘We’ve got to go get them,’ They were fired up….The friends I worked with gathered their coats. They were protective of me.”

Most recently, Saleem-Ismail became concerned with the rhetoric from Republican candidates, particularly Donald Trump, leading up to the November election. She joined a group called the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia, which hosted Saturday’s rally.

After Trump’s election, Saleem-Ismail said, “There were many reports of women having their hijabs pulled off their heads and of kids being harassed in schools. We try to keep a pulse to see if we can provide support.”

Asked about the reason for Saturday’s march, Saleem-Ismail said, “When one community is targeted, we are all targeted; we are all part of humanity…There is power in numbers.”

Dozens of groups and individuals — from the African American Cultural Center of the Capital Region and Albany Cuba Solidarity to the Bethlehem Area Pantsuit Nation and the Queer Palestinian Empowerment Network — came together to support the rally.

Many of the faces in Saturday’s crowd were familiar from protests of another era. Steve Downs served as a timekeeper for the speakers. A lawyer, Downs made international headlines when he wore a T-shirt with a peace slogan at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland before the start of the war in Iraq and was arrested.

Ruth Pelham, known for her Music Mobile bringing song to generations of Albany kids, brought her guitar and led the crowd in a song she had written in the 1980s.  “I look forward to when we don’t have to sing it any more,” she said.

Diverse causes — from calls for peace to condemnation of “scabs” — were espoused at the rally. But the people in the march — gay and straight; black and white and Asian; Christian, Jewish, and Muslim — stood as one for those who, to use the words of Albany’s mayor, were “marginalized and mocked” during the presidential campaign.

Some of the most poignant stories told at the microphone were of refugees — from an elderly Jewish man on the last refugee boat out of Nazi Germany in 1941 to a young man from war-torn Syria whose family recently came to Albany.

The most prominent thread in the multi-colored tapestry was one centered on the president-elect’s suggestion of a registry for Muslim immigrants. A Japanese woman read the words of George Takei, responding to the idea there was no harm done when Japanese Americans were moved to internment camps during World War II: “I remember the tears falling down my mother’s face,” he said.

A Quaker poet, Elizabeth Gordon, quite rightly spoke of the Nazis’ labeling Jews, setting them apart by forcing each to wear a yellow Star of David, as a first step that ultimately led to their being herded to concentration camps.

Gordon told the marchers of the legend that, when the Nazis invaded Denmark, the Danish king said, if they forced the Jews to wear the yellow stars in Denmark, the king and his family would wear the stars, too. “Neighbor hid neighbor,” she said and, while other countries lost tens of thousands of Jews, Denmark lost 51 people out of 150,000.

It is true, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, that the Jews in Denmark, unlike the other countries occupied by the Nazis, did not have to wear yellow stars and that King Christian X and the majority of Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens, saving almost all of them from Nazi persecution and death.

“Denmark saved its humanity,” the poet said.

Saturday’s march was a step toward saving our humanity, here and now in these United States of America.

Each of us needs to stand up and speak out if we see the rights of another being trampled. If we allow people to be seen as stereotypes, they easily become seen as threats — instead of as the individuals they are.

We will close with the words we have used here before and which were spoken so forcefully at Saturday’s rally — those of Martin Niemoller, the Protestant pastor who spoke out against Adolf Hitler and ended up in a concentration camp:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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