That's me right after a conversation of about half an hour last night with a few members of the Proud Boys, who have become an unfortunate fixture around meetings of Nashua's Board of Education. Knowing they would be there I could not stay home. This is my family's school, and my community, and people I know who are being harassed by them.
A few thoughts:
- It is more than distressing that this group is now a public fixture in Nashua particular at Board of Ed meetings. It is incredibly reassuring how easy it was to gather another group in much greater numbers outside the school against white nationalism. That latter group has developed an energy of ease and confidence, of genuine joy to see each other. It's not defensive or reactive, beyond the reactive element of choosing when to meet. There were no attempts to shout at the Proud Boys or chant at them, and in fact if had I read some things ahead of time from local organizers I'd have stuck with the plan of not engaging them at all and just focusing on being a pro-democracy coalition glad to be with each other.
- I hope it's clear that when I'm talking about the Proud Boys, I mean just them, and not people generally who are politically conservative or Republicans.
- I went to talk to a few of the Proud Boys. I introduced myself as a Jew and a rabbi. I wanted to stand that ground on their side of the sidewalk. A couple of them told me they have Jews in their local group. I'll be honest, I thought my presence might bait them, though I figured probably not, and it didn't.
- So I had to decide whether to talk further or not. I take conversation seriously, and I don't enter into it as a stunt. My credibility on this point is perhaps all I uniquely have as a local leader, and I would not squander it for gamesmanship or a cheap self-congratulation. So I was willing, as long as I was talking, to talk with them based on what was right there on the sidewalk in their signs, in whatever came up in their words of our conversation, to talk about things in our actual community and not an image they had or I have about someone else, not something I had heard third-hand about them.
- They were wearing body cameras, a couple of them. I don't know if they were real but they said it was for transparency. So perhaps the part of the conversation with the camera'd-up men is recorded somewhere and used for some purpose.
- I asked them about their signs -- about Marxism, critical race theory -- and they told me about what Black Lives Matter leaders are trying to do and where they are trained, and what is being taught in Nashua schools. Except they couldn't tell me anything that was actually happening in any of our schools, or any specific curriculum, or any specific website. Nothing they referenced was anything other than vague. I gave them specifics about people in town, in the schools and the activist community, and in the course of that a couple of my interlocutors just walked away. I told them some things about website and incidents I thought they might be referring to, and what the facts are around those things that they might actually celebrate. No response. I said I was giving them the benefit in this conversation of not talking about general things I had read about them, and invited them to talk to me that way too.
- I talked to them about accountability for bad things one's own group does on a number of levels. I told them about anti-Semitic intimidation in town from members of the Proud Boys, and they told me they don't stand for it and encouraged me to follow up with specifics. They gave me contact information that turned out to be bogus when I tried to follow up today. I told them what I do when there is anti-Semitism in groups I'm a part of or even groups I'm more loosely allied with, and how much time I spend speaking to groups or engaging people over coffee around that. I suggested that they could demonstrate something by doing the same, if they want to be taken seriously as a group for racial equality which is what their signs said last night.
- Since they wanted to engage me in friendship as a Jew, I tried to work an analogy from exploring the history of white and Christian anti-Semitism even today, when a Jew like me has it good in white and American Christian society. I said it's essential to face this history, because that's part of making things better, and doing so doesn't make me anti-Christian or make the wounds of the past worse. In fact just the opposite, and I am quite the proof about it. They said that rehashing slavery and such is just "opening up wounds for no reason."
- I talked about my patriotism, and my choice to live here and not in Israel, and how nothing in the exploration of the history around race in the U.S. makes me less committed to being American. I said it's possible to be ashamed of certain actions in the past of one's group or family, without being ashamed to be part of that group or family. This is how we heal. They didn't like that at all.
- One person I spoke with said he was religious, and we talked about the sense of responsibility that comes with being a religious person and the awareness of how groups go astray that is also part of humanity. He said he thinks of human nature as susceptible to sin, but not any particular groups as groups. So groups within humanity don't need to confront their own past wrongs or explore themselves as groups; just humans as humans.
- I told them about what members of my own family who are Black have experienced, and friends of mine in the local community, and asked if they have any sympathy for that, and got no response at all.
- They asked me if I was aware of the law Gov. Sununu recently signed about teaching around race in schools. I explained to them what the Attorney General just announced about how our history can be taught. I think they thought the law supports their position and their case about the schools, and they were going to tell me how. But it turns out that it doesn't; just the opposite.
- In this picture above I see one of the Proud Boys giving the OK sign. I understand this is either a trolling poke at me and who they take me to be -- maybe they wondered what I would be doing with that picture -- or it's an actual not-so-secret white nationalist signal meant to outsmart me for posting this picture. Neither of these is awesome, but I suppose I could have said I was taking a picture and would be writing about this and sharing the photo, so I'll call it a draw.
I was prepared, if the controversy about "critical race theory" was brought up in the Board of Ed meeting, to make a speech based on what I think democratic education is about. I have a pretty good speech, if I say so myself -- it's not the usual stuff, I think it's original, and I'll publish that at some point or maybe use it at the next Board of Ed meeting. I left the meeting inside pretty quickly because I'm not ready to be inside with a group that way. So I don't know what happened after I left, and I have to catch up.
Why did I bother with this? I wasn't going to change anyone's mind. But more and more, I think that when a group like the Proud Boys projects themselves, the important thing is to meet them not just as protestors, but as "I am the reality here." I can feel a change here in town; I could feel it in my body. My heart was not in any way pounding, as it usually is in these situations. That's because of this coalition that is coming together here in Nashua with confidence and dare I say love. It's the early days and it's not a uniform coalition who agree on everything when it comes to justice. Usually, the handful of times I've talked to activists like the Proud Boys I leave feeling frustrated and like I didn't come close to doing my part well. This time I knew I had the better of the argument, and they were far more tired of talking to me than vice versa.
Why did I bother? This makes me stronger and sharper. It tells me that the time I have spent slowly getting to know more people from religious and cultural groups outside my own is in fact making a difference. There are answers to some of the divisive questions today that are not just compromises or safety valves. I am proud to be in the mix, which is all that I am, and I would be proud to bring any of you who are local along with me.