WORCESTER, Mass – “Over 400,000 people from the United States died fighting the Nazis, over 400,000 people
sticking up for our rights,” Worcester Mayor Joe Petty said today, speaking in front of City Hall to a group of hundreds who showed up to protest the rise of the alt-right’s hatred and extremism across the U.S.
The 1,000 or so people who came out in Worcester joined a national outpouring of sympathy and solidarity for those injured yesterday protesting the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, including Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car driven by a right-wing extremist plowed into a crowd of anti-extremist protesters. Two Virginia state police officers, Pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, died in the line of duty. 19 others were injured in the violence.
While President Trump’s Aug. 12 statement condemned “violence from all sources and all sides,” Petty was for more direct. Worcester’s mayor extended condolences and prayers for Heyer, as well as to those injured, “for their quick recovery from the act of terrorism.”
Joyce McNickles, representing Worcester’s YWCA, argued that white people need to be involved in the struggle against racism and the alt right, saying, “Now is the time for all the white people who are sickened by white supremacy and racism to stand up and speak out.”
Attendees came from many racial and ethnic backgrounds, and included members of different faith groups, as well as non-believers. Rev. Jose Encarnacion, of the Christian Community Church, said he was motivated by his faith to come and speak against “the evil slogan of ‘making America great again.’”
“To be silent on matters of hatred and bigotry is antithetical to the gospel,” Rev. Encarncion told the crowd. “The gospel is the good news: the good news of love, the good news of hope, the good news of justice, the good news of grace, the good news of peace, and therefore tonight I stand on the mandate of my savior and the gospel to love one another as he has loved us.”
The reverend referenced the first letter of John, quoting, “Whoever comes claims to love God but hates a brother or a sister is a liar.”
From a more secular perspective, Worcester Public Schools high school student Denazia Fahie, reading a poem she had written, said that it was necessary to fight not with hatred, but to “fight fire with all-consuming love.”
The alt-right rally in Virginia was sparked by reaction to that state’s plans to remove a statue in honor General Robert E. Lee, who led the treasonous Confederate Army during the Civil War. Consequently, what it means to be an American, as well as the meaning of American history, was part of the conversation during the Worcester demonstration, as it has been across the country.
Noting that one of the alt-right organizers stated an aim of the Charlottesville march was to defend “our history,” Tahir Ali of the Islamic Center of Worcester asked: “Which history?”
“If you want to embrace a statue, then embrace the Statue of Liberty!” he said to applause.
Rabbi Valerie Cohen of Temple Emmanuel noted that acts of racism and anti-Semitism are increasing dramatically. “We must always take sides,” she said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim; silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Cohen also took issue with the term “alt-right,” arguing that it was an insult to conservatives who would never condone the Virginia violence.
Estrella Nader, a Worcester Public Schools high school student called for an “organized mass movement” against right-wing extremism, saying, that “These white nationalists do not have any power over us; their only support is this racist president. We need to make ourselves a coherent movement.” She called the alt-right “incoherent,” referring to the divisions between its different, warring factions: the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and others. Nader argued the need for a political organization that could “fight for systemic changes to prevent the development and emboldening of the far right in the first place.”
Worcester’s rally was organized by the local branch of Standing up for Racial Justice, or SURJ. Etel Haxhiaj, a leader of the organization, was the MC for the event. As the event ended, participants vowed to continue to isolate the alt-right and the most extreme policies of the Trump administration. Other organizations, including religious institutions and the left-leaning Greater Worcester Our Revolution, endorsed and mobilized for the event.
Aside from Mayor Petty, others attendinging the event included City Council member Sarai Rivera, State Sen. Harriette Chandler, city manager Ed Augustus, school committee candidate Dante Comparetto, city council candidates Doug Arbetter and Ed Moynihan, as well as former Worcester Mayor Joe O’Brien. City Council member Kate Toomey, said that, had she not been recovering from surgery, she would have attended, and posted to social media, “My America has no place for hate. No man or woman, no religion, no ethnicity, no race is greater than another. We are all human beings.”
While a small group of mask-wearing anarchists reportedly attempted to disrupt the rally, the event ran smoothly. After the rally was over, SURJ members, before leaving, ensured that they left the location of the rally clean.
In a dilemma that perhaps says much about Worcester’s status as a welcoming city, many were unable to attend the rally because they had already planned to attend the Worcester World Cup, a soccer competition that celebrates Worcester immigrant communities.