Roughly a week after 31 people were killed and dozens injured in mass shootings that happened just hours apart, a small crowd gathered in Railroad Square in Keene Monday afternoon to protest hate, bigotry and white supremacy.
About 35 people attended the rally, which organizer Conor Hill said was planned after 22 people were killed at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart on Aug. 3, by a man who said he went there to target Mexicans, according to an affidavit filed by the El Paso Police Department.
Standing in a loose semicircle across the square, protesters in Keene Monday held signs with hand-painted messages, such as “Love Trumps Hate” and “Fight Ignorance Not Immigrants.” As speakers took the microphone, some addressed the violence in Texas specifically, while others spoke of a political climate they argued has allowed hateful rhetoric to flourish.
Mitchell H. Greenwald, a Ward 2 city councilor and a candidate for mayor, read a resolution adopted by the City Council in 2017, after one person was killed and dozens injured at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. The resolution condemns terrorism and xenophobia and affirms Keene’s commitment to being an “inclusive, tolerant, respectful and just” community.
“We need to say, repeatedly, bigotry and hatred has no place in Keene. We won’t tolerate it,” Greenwald said before reading the document, and later reiterating that the resolution should be “read, and read, and remembered.”
Mohammad Saleh, a Keene activist and member of the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership, shared his personal experience with prejudice. Saleh, who emigrated from Bangladesh, told rally attendees of a time when his then-two-year-old son was sleeping one night. A neighbor in their apartment building was playing loud music, so Saleh went to ask him to stop.
The neighbor’s reply was, “Stop bombing us,” Saleh said.
Another time, Saleh recalled, his boss joked about how long it would take a Mexican man to fall from the Empire State Building. The punchline was, “Who cares?” In that moment, Saleh didn’t say anything — but it’s at moments like these that people must speak up, he said Monday.
“There are moments in my life where I have remained silent, and there are many in our community right now who do not speak up. I would like to ask all of you to take this message and tell them that silence may not be hate, but silence makes the ground fertile for hate,” he told the crowd. “So it’s no longer time to remain silent.”
Rev. Derek Scalia spoke of the country’s “history of hate,” noting the recent shootings’ proximity to the anniversaries of the first slaves being brought to America, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and the 1965 death of Keene activist Jonathan Daniels, who was killed while shielding another civil rights activist from gunfire.
“These are not easy things for us to hold within our hearts. There is a pain that is lingering over our country that has been here for generations,” said Scalia, of St. James Episcopal Church in Keene. “It is time that not only us, but all of our brothers and sisters, all of our siblings that are sitting, not participating in this, stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough, and something must be done.’ “
As D’Vorah Kelley took the microphone, holding a sign reading “We Should All Care,” she began to speak in Spanish. There are many people who don’t speak English, she said, and she wanted to speak for and to those people in saying, “El odio no tiene lugar aquí.”
“Do you know what that means? It means hate has no place here, it has no home here,” Kelley said. “It has no home here in Keene, it has no home here in the United States.”
Several of those who spoke, including rising Keene High School senior Alea Kenney, called for leaders to act in response to hate and gun violence. Kenney said she attended the rally because she considers dissent a “patriotic act,” and that she was particularly affected by the school shooting last year in Parkland, Fla.
“In the weeks afterwards, politicians, lawmakers, they let us down over and over again,” she said. “We didn’t see change even though we kept calling for it, and then it kept happening, because people in power were too afraid to take positions that would save American lives.”
As the rally came to a close after about 45 minutes, Hill, a recent Keene High graduate, acknowledged that the frequency of violent events can make it feel difficult to make any difference.
“But it’s important that we continue to speak out. It’s important that we continue to organize like this, because when we organize like this, we see things happen. It’s important to organize because when we organize, we obtain peace,” Hill said. “And peace is progress. And progress is inevitable.”