PETERBOROUGH — In the abstract, the hate crimes, hate speech and similar incidents in recent years that experts discussed in Peterborough Wednesday night could strike community members as random and out of place in New Hampshire.
Yet historical context from leaders in the American Civil Liberties Union, Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program, and the Civil Rights Unit at the N.H. Department of Justice put the incidents into place.
Panelists mentioned bigotry-fueled flash points across the state, from the 2011 hate-crime vandalism at the home of African refugees in Concord to the graffiti of swastikas and racial slurs on student residences at the University of New Hampshire in Durham in 2017.
Another high-profile incident that same year was in Claremont, where a then-8-year-old biracial boy suffered friction burns on his neck after a group of teenagers allegedly pushed him off a picnic table while tied to a tree with a rope.
Weaving between past and present, Wednesday’s panel displayed a conversational historiography — the study of how history is taught and understood — to enrich the conversation.
Looking to the past, panelists said, can help tie the New Hampshire incidents to concepts like the narrative of American history and the psychological underpinnings of implicit bias.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of ACLU-NH, outlined to the crowd of roughly 30 at the Mariposa Museum how the nonprofit organization defines hate speech, who it defends in controversial cases and why.
Nationally, the ACLU has famously represented neo-Nazis in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., while also advocating for civil rights for African Americans and against the discrimination of transgender soldiers. While the ACLU takes a hard line on protecting anyone from having the content of their speech censored by the government, Chaffee noted that there are also consequences that come with that exercise.
“We shouldn’t deny the power that hate speech has to do real, serious harm to the individuals in our community,” she said. “It has the power to make people live in fear. It has the power to exclude people, especially people who are a part of communities that are already marginalized, and it has the power to have real detrimental physical impacts on people’s physical, as well as mental, health.”
Tom White, coordinator of educational outreach at the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, told the audience about the long view students are encouraged to take in the center’s one-of-a-kind major.
Rather than taking a moral high ground or assuming superiority in hindsight when studying events like the Holocaust, White said students are pushed to examine their own roles in inheriting the legacy of slavery in the United States and the removal of Native Americans from their land.
White and Maggie Fogarty of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program also drew optimism from what they said are creative ways young people have used social media and community organizing to rally against hate groups and incidents like the ones at UNH.
Swastika graffiti was also found in various places at Keene State in 2016.
Elizabeth Lahey, director of the Civil Rights Unit at the N.H. Department of Justice, discussed how she works with local governments, police and community members to counteract hate groups and incidents that may or may not rise to the level of a hate crime by evaluating implicit bias and finding responses that do not feed fuel to the fire.
This involves forms of bystander intervention, as well as a consideration of de-escalation techniques when intense protests and counter-protests erupt. These tactics include hearing out another person’s rant or making eye contact with someone being harassed and asking if they need any help.
Among those in the crowd Wednesday was Dottie Morris, associate vice president for institutional diversity and equity at Keene State.
Along with Chaffee and Lahey, Morris is an appointee to Gov. Chris Sununu’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion.
Morris brought up discussions she has with students at Keene State and how she works as a mediator in a variety of situations in need of de-escalation and mutual understanding.
Key for Morris and the panelists is a broader perspective on American history, particularly with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, in understanding the origins of hate crimes and hate groups in New Hampshire.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 10 active chapters of hate groups in the state.
One historical example White noted was a government-commissioned study in the early years of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich that aimed to learn how to achieve a racially purified state.
Of all of the places they could have gone, White said, they chose America’s South.
“That should give us great pause,” White said.
Then came a turn to a positive note.
The panel highlighted Jonathan Daniels, a Keene-born civil rights activist who in 1965 was murdered in Alabama while protecting teenager Ruby Sales from a shotgun shot.
Daniels would be designated a martyr by the Episcopal Church in 1991, and Sales went on to work as a human rights advocate, founding The SpiritHouse Project in 2001, which she still runs today.