A few years ago, I was walking on State Street, just a bit past Pleasant. It was a lovely spring day. A group of six or so girls and boys were walking toward me. They seemed to be about 16 to 18. I had to move to the side and pause to make way for them.
One of the kids accidentally dropped some loose change on the sidewalk. A couple of others bent down to grab the coins, and a young woman picked them up first. One of her friends, a 6-foot-tall boy with blond hair, exclaimed, “She out-Jewed me!” and everyone — except me — laughed.
This casual display of prejudice and stereotyping was distressing to me, but, I chalked it up as a thoughtless remark, just one of those sad manifestations of the low-level ignorance and intolerance that’s present in most communities.
I was more concerned in spring 2015 when there were four instances of intolerant behavior and hate-filled imagery of various types at Nock Middle School and Newburyport High. I found it worrisome that the administration didn’t treat the accusations of anti-feminist behavior at the high school as worthy of serious consideration.
Mayor Donna Holaday did not see any links between the events; she saw them as “isolated incidents.” It was understandable to me that she lamented the coverage being given to these occurrences while there are so many successes of the school system that could be celebrated. However, the number struck me as an unusual rash of extremism.
And now, in the past few weeks, we have an instance where a young person has been reprimanded for deliberately saluting Hitler in the presence of Jewish children, a mean act that was meant to intimidate. Is this also an “isolated incident?” I think not.
As The Daily News and other sources have reported, hate has certainly been on the march since Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office. It is not surprising that intolerance for minority groups would be on the rise during the course of an administration whose leader’s first words as a candidate described our neighbors on our southern border in the following way: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. ... They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [to] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Hate crimes are up across the board, and anti-Semitism is having a particular heyday, up about 33%. The murders of Jews worshipping in synagogues on two occasions exactly six months apart aren’t what I would call “isolated incidents.”
Commentators have referred to Jews as “the canary in the coal mine of freedom.” They are a small fraction (0.25%) of the world’s population whose emphasis on literacy, discussion and debate is one factor, among others, that has tended to bring them into positions of responsibility and expertise, particularly in societies where merit is highly valued. Quite a few Jews are prominent and outspoken. Free societies tolerate and appreciate them; however, where freedom declines, Jews are in trouble.
A restorative justice process has been proposed as a way to deal with Newburyport High’s Nazi salute episode. In this approach, all affected parties — victims, offenders and community members – participate in resolving the feelings leading up to and generated by the offensive behavior. This method makes good sense, and I certainly hope that it’s successful here. That said, I don’t know how the strategy will address racial, religious or ethnic hate.
Hate does not exist in a vacuum. What is the context out of which the offender took action? Where did this young person learn that it’s OK to idolize and mimic Nazism? Is the offender proud of what he/she did? Who does he/she associate with? Do they hold similar views? What about the family, what do they believe?
Does the process get at what goes on in the extended family system that might support this sort of action? What is on the kid’s hard drive? Where does he/she spend time on the internet? If he/she is hanging out on hate sites, who are the people he/she corresponds with there? If they are adults, are they known to the police in their communities? If they are students, are their school systems aware of their prejudice and behavior? These are the types of questions I would want to see included in an investigation of what happened here.
And, I would want to know if weaponry is anywhere near this kid.
One of the saddest comments I’ve ever heard is the remark made by a young woman after a student in school in Kentucky shot and killed several classmates: “No one was really surprised. We all knew it would happen here, we just didn’t know when or who would do it.” (Paraphrase).
We may tell ourselves that such a thing could never happen in Newburyport. I’m sure that most of the parents at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida, felt the same way as they saw their kids off to school on the morning of Feb. 14, 2018.
Michael Sales lives in Newburyport.