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Residents unite against messages of hate

By Jackie Lupo
TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

Karen Hammerness talks into a microphone as she stands alongside follow members of Hastings RISE.

 

HASTINGS — When walkers in Hillside Woods discovered handbills near Sugar Pond last week bearing the message “Our Future Belongs to Us” and the name “Identity Evropa,” along with an emblem of a triangle divided in thirds, police were called. The five handbills were removed, but the message lingered from the white supremacist group that has been leafleting across the country.

The incident disturbed many Hastings residents, especially after swastikas were found drawn on a computer and in a bathroom at the middle/high school Farragut Complex last month. Hastings Police Chief Anthony Visalli said no witnesses had reported seeing who put up the leaflets last Wednesday, Feb. 8, and the investigation was ongoing, as was the search for the source(s) of the swastikas.

Afreen Alam, who moved to Hastings from Queens with her husband, Shera, and their 3-year-old son, Rayhan, two months ago, was horrified when, on Feb. 8, she went read about the white supremacist fliers on Facebook. She then posted her own message, challenging whoever had put up the racist messages to meet her in front of VFW Post 200 on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 11 a.m. She promised she’d be there whatever the weather, and noted that she’d be easy to identify, since she is heavily pregnant.

Well over 100 residents of Hastings and surrounding communities stood alongside Alam and her family that morning. Hastings RISE — a grassroots group whose name is an acronym for Racial Inclusion & Social Equity — coordinated the peaceful rally where members of assorted activist groups mixed with attendees outraged that hate propaganda had infiltrated a village that prides itself on inclusion and social justice.

Village resident David Press handed out fliers issued by the newly formed Westchester group “Not In Our Towns-United Against Hate.” Dan Lutz of Irvington, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Lower Hudson Valley Chapter, attended to show his support. “We have about 50 members in Westchester,” he explained. “We’ve gotten a lot more since the election, and we believe everyone’s welcome in the community.” Lutz was heartened that Irvington officials spoke out in favor of a local “sanctuary law” earlier that week at a village board meeting.

Diane Foster of Tarrytown, one of the founders of Westchester for Change, another grassroots activist group, replied “Everything!” when asked why she attended the rally. “It’s hard to pick one issue. I think what’s being done is just so un-American and so awful. Whatever happened to ‘Give me your tired, your poor’?” Nicole Lesser and Shelli Katz, Hastings residents who belong to the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety, attended, as did follow resident Susan Rutman, who a year ago was among nine people arrested during a protest of the AIM SPECTRA pipeline in Montrose. “It’s important to be standing together,” Rutman declared. “All our grievances are connected.”

Connection was indeed the theme of the event. On social media, RISE had encouraged attendees to turn the event into an opportunity to “show up in all our intersecting identities” and to bring a poster describing their ethnic roots. Many signs cited multiple religions, races, and countries of origin. Judith Bruce’s sign indicated ancestors tracing back to “blondes with clubs” including “Vikings, Celts, Normans, and Scots.”

Sherry Sundel of Hastings attended with her husband, Glenn. “My parents were Holocaust survivors, so you have to take this seriously,” she said. Her husband added, “This was always an open community and it’s shocking this has happened here. It’s good to see so many people around and concerned. It’s heartening.”

Bessie Wilkerson of Hastings, whose 10-month-old daughter, Ruby, rode in a baby carrier, moved to the village from Brooklyn two years ago. “There’s so much going on in the country that’s so terrifying,” she said, adding that it was important to make it clear that “we as a community support everyone living here safely and happily, and that we think diversity makes us stronger.” Hastings resident Mary Greenly, a senior citizen and self-described “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant” whose forebears arrived in this country centuries ago, borrowed the microphone from the RISE organizers to say, “I don’t understand these people who say ‘Everybody has to look like me.’ And I want you to know I can’t approve of this. I’m a fierce patriot.”

Hastings Mayor Peter Swiderski told of his own heritage as the child of Polish war refugees, who had been considered to be on the low rungs of the social ladder by the Germans. “Our goal should be not to structure ourselves on the rungs of a ladder like these people want us to do. The more we can show ourselves to our neighbors, the stronger our community will be.” Swiderski had spoken with the Anti-Defamation League of Westchester, which had sent representatives to Temple Beth Shalom a year ago to talk to residents after an unknown person spray-painted six swastikas and the word “Jews” on a house in the village. The mayor said the ADL was aware of the Identity Evropa hate group, and that such organizations “use a lot of coded language.” He said the words on the posters “don’t fall into the category of a crime, but it’s clearly hate... promoting kids to log onto their site.”

As for Alam, she and her husband had chosen to raise their children in Hastings because of its reputation as a “family-friendly village” where education and diversity are important. Alam’s family came from Bangladesh in 1992 and her husband’s family arrived from India in the 1970s. She has worked in the social justice movement, and in housing community development, and most recently for a federal agency founded to provide financial education to consumers in the wake of the financial collapse. Her husband is a technologist who consults for the financial industry.

Alam said she was surprised to see so many people at the event, although she has been attending demonstrations “all her life, starting out sitting on my father’s shoulders.”

“I’m so relieved to see people feeling many similar sentiments,” she said. “Sharing outrage. Sharing our common humanity.”


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


 

February 17, 2017

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