Buffalo 1981, Charlottesville 2017

In 1981 Karl Hand, a neo-nazi sympathizer, organized a “whites have rights” rally in Buffalo and called on others to join him. I remember it clearly because there was a big lead up to it and counter protests were scheduled. The community was on edge, worried about what might happen.

On the day of the event Karl Hand was joined by no one. A swarm of media and counter protestors were there but no one other than Hand showed up for his rally. He stood there alone, a solitary bigoted figure, against a united greater community.

I remember taking great pride in my community knowing no one would stand with that Nazi racist. I talked about it then with my late grandfather Mark Lewandowski. Grandpa Mark served in WWII. He was from the “Greatest Generation” that gave so much to rid the world of fascism. He was equally proud of our community for standing up to Hand and all the bigotry and hatred he stood for.

While I miss my grandfather I am glad he did not witness the events of yesterday and the previous night. During his time while bigots existed, they hid from plain sight, certainly not showing their face to the public. He would not have believed his eyes seeing such overt racism and open bigotry. He would have thought, like I did until the recent years, that the open racism and bigotry of the past was long gone. However, as we have unfortunately seen recently, not only is it still alive, it is open for all to see. The bigots of the past wore white sheets over their heads to protect their identities. Today they proudly carry tiki torches while making a Nazi salute for all to see.

The First Amendment protects the right of such a bigoted, racist white supremacist/member of the KKK/Nazi to state those beliefs; however it does not protect such an individual from being called what you are – a weak, racist bigoted person – and being told how your hate will not be tolerated in our country. We as a nation, united as Americans regardless of the color of one’s skin, religion, sex, ethnicity, etc., must stand up to such racism and say not here, not ever.

That is what Heather Heyer and others who came out to peacefully counter-protest did yesterday. They joined together to say your hatred, your racism will not tolerated in Charlottesville today, tomorrow, or ever. Now her name will be forever linked with a stained day in our American democracy due to her death in a terrorist attack by a weak, sick racist. Just like Virginia State Police Officers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates names will be forever linked to this sad day as they died in a helicopter crash while responding to the Charlottesville incident. One person died peaceably protesting the hatred of others, two others died while protecting the public. This should not happen in our country.

36 years have passed since Karl Hand’s solitary protest, but instead of our nation extinguishing the embers of hatred represented by Hand, the smoldering embers were fanned during the past three decades (especially on the Internet) and took fire during last year’s presidential campaign. As a result, 36 years after Buffalo and Erie County said “not here, not ever” to the bigoted hatred of one, three people are dead because of the open bigoted hatred of many.

This is not now and can never be deemed acceptable. Violence and terrorism, whether it be by hand, knife, gun or a Dodge Charger, must always be condemned and those who perpetrate it prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law. Hatred and bigotry of any kind can never be tolerated. There are not multiple sides in this issue and no excuses can be made for the vitriolic statements and actions of others. There are only those who espouse racism and hatred and the rest of a civilized society. We as a nation must rise up like Buffalo and Erie County did in 1981 and say we will not tolerate White Supremacists, Nazis, the KKK or whatever is the name used that day; not here, not ever.

Mark Poloncarz is the County Executive of Erie County, New York
Copyright 2017