Monday, September 28, 2015

When Hate Comes to Town

A face of Vallejo: local musician
David Meletiche El and his son.
   I live in what can be considered a medium-sized town in the San Francisco Bay area. With a population of about 115,000 Vallejo is a town with a lot of history: we were once the capital of California (1851-1852), the home of Mare Island Naval Shipyard (MINSY), and, More recently, a well-publicized bankruptcy. For most of its life, Vallejo was a "company" town for the shipyard, and when MINSY closed in 1996, the town nearly dried up and blew away. It's now primarily a bedroom community for the East Bay and San Francisco, and is known for it's usually glorious weather (not too much fog, and a nice afternoon sea breeze) and affordable housing. We've lived here more than 20 years, and it's pretty safe to say that we've put down roots.
   One thing that Vallejo has is a successful Saturday farmers' market. Occupying two blocks of Georgia Street (Vallejo's "main street") on Saturday mornings, the farmers' market is more than just a place to find nice organic produce, toothsome baked goods, and fresh oysters--it's a social institution. Local organizations set up booths among the purveyors of eggs, honey, and radishes, and there's nearly as much political activity as there is commercial activity. Everybody in Vallejo goes to the farmers' market on Saturday, and it's common to run into friends, neighbors, and (in my case) former students. It's a mellow place, and a nice way to spend a Saturday morning before jumping into the bustle of errand-running that normally fills my Saturdays.
When Hate comes to Vallejo,
Love goes to the Saturday Farmers' Market.
   Sadly, our little oasis of mellow has been invaded by hate. About four months ago, a group of purple-shirted young men showed up and began yelling three feet behind me as I was talking to an artisanal cheesemaker. Quite frankly, I can't even tell you what they were yelling about--all I remember was that it became impossible for me to conduct business with the cheesemaker until they finally moved on. That was the last time I set foot in our Saturday farmers' market. I don't like someone yelling into my ear as I'm trying to shop, and my schedule allows me to shop at our Friday farmers' market at one of the local hospitals.
   I recently found out who that group is, and what they are trying to do. The group calls itself "Israel United in Christ," and is, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, a black separatist, anti-Semitic hate group. They are, basically, the mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan. Their usual modus operandi is to target a city, aggressively spew their hate, provoke a confrontation, and then sue the municipality over infringement of their First Amendment rights. They have done this in other cities in Northern California, and they've decided that Vallejo's farmers' market is a good target--it's held on public property (Georgia Street is closed on Saturday mornings for the farmers' market), and there isn't an aggressively enforced policy regarding free speech.
   Members of the local arts community is actively concerned about what is happening. Shopping at the farmers' market was becoming unpleasant, right at a time when the farmers' stalls are full of late summer goodness. Also, his is the time of year when the arts take on a higher profile: Vallejo Open Studios is in seven weeks, and four weeks after that is the Mad Hatter Parade. On those Saturdays (November 7 and December 5) Vallejo is full of visitors, and the last thing anyone wants is a hate group harassing people.
   Dealing with a hate group is difficult. On the one hand, hate speech is horribly offensive; on the other hand, even the most hateful speech is protected speech. There is also the danger that the hate can escalate--some members of the group were snapping pictures during the dueling protests, while other members have been spotted in "plainclothes," scouting our local arts education center. There is also a limited amount that the city government can do: they "lease" the space to the downtown merchants' association which, in turn, contracts out the running of the farmers' market.
The best way to counteract hate is with bubbles!
   Starting the Saturday after Labor Day, the artists' community decided to counteract hate with love, by staging the first of a series of "Bubble Love-In" demonstrations in the farmers' market. Using humor, dance, homemade signs, and kazoos, about 30 artists and residents generally herded and worried the purple-shirted members of the group into an area at one end of the farmers' market, and created enough noise to counteract their hate-filled yelling. I contributed in my own little way, wearing silly glasses, a red clown nose, blowing bubbles, and playing a kazoo for all I was worth.
   Were our peaceful counter-demonstrations successful? I don't know. Nobody got arrested, although the local police were in proximity (I waved whenever I saw them). At one point, I slipped away from the group and noticed that, for most of the people at the farmers' market, it was simply another Saturday of shopping. If that's a measure of success, then we achieved our goal. The company running the farmers' market has announced that they will create a "free speech area," which may put limits on hate groups, but also limits other activities such as voter registration and political campaigning. Have we encouraged them to move on? Not yet, but I'm  hopeful that they'll soon realize that there is little to be gained disrupting our farmers' market.

UPDATE: I held off on posting this piece because I wanted to "fact check" my writing with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Since I wrote this on September 20, the farmers' market association has established some rules (including a form that must be filled out before setting up a booth) and a "Free Speech Zone." The group refused on Saturday to honor any of this, but the farmers' market association refused to enforce their own rules, claiming that it is up to the City of Vallejo to pass a city ordinance. So, it seems that it is up to the citizenry to make it clear that our town is not a place for haters.