Thursday, October 27, 2005

Hate In The Room

I saw the face of hatred last night.

Morris Dees, civil rights attorney and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has used the courts so successfully to fight and defeat the Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups, was in town for an event on the campus of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

Several hundred people showed up to hear him after waiting patiently to go through a security screening at the door to ensure that no one had any weapons. Because Dees' work has made him so many enemies, he travels with his own security force, which works with the local authorities (in this case, UMSL police) to keep him and those who support him safe.

About ten minutes into Dees' speech, a man in the audience suddenly stood up and started yelling something at Dees. While Dees stopped talking, he didn't flinch or step back from the podium as a police officer went over and told the intruder that he'd have to leave, and would be charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace if he tried to return. He was escorted out without any trouble (I loved the irony of the police officer being African-American).

Dees then explained that he'd been warned that a local hate group might have some people planted in the crowd, but hoped there wouldn't be any other interruptions. Before Dees could go much further, another man rose and started shouting at Dees. This time, he was immediately drowned out by boos and other comments from the crowd, including one woman, a senior citizen, who took a few steps towards him and told him he wasn't wanted there. As the guy was also removed from the room, a member of Dees' security detail went over to the woman and explained that she should just stay in her seat and let them take care of it, which she did -- but not before a third intruder interrupted the proceedings, followed a minute later by a fourth. They, too, were escorted out.

Dees, who had still not left the podium for even a moment, said that he'd given over 2,000 speeches through the years, and though this sort of incident was rare, he had seen it before. He talked about the anger and fear and intolerance that would lead someone to act this way.

As he spoke, I scanned the room -- not looking to see who would interrupt next, but to check the faces of those, like me, who support Dees and his work.

What I saw was the face of hatred.

Not the violent hatred that fills the souls of white supremacists and other groups, but the hatred of people who uniformly believe in good but were now being confronted by bad. Because security removed the interlopers fairly quickly, there was no opportunity for violence, but I could see how a mob mentality could have easily spread, even in a crowd of peaceful, tolerant people.

They were angry that an event they'd looked forward to, with a man they admired so much, was being ruined -- no, that's not the word, because Dees eventually completed his hour-long speech and got a standing ovation, as much in support of him as in defiance of the extremists who had tried to shout him down.

The tension in the room was palpable, but Dees continued, telling wonderful stories about growing up in the same small southern town as Rosa Parks, about what she had meant to him and the battle for civil rights. He told a story about a group of Vietnamese immigrants he had helped fight the Klan over the right to take their shrimp boats out into the Gulf of Mexico and build a business, just trying to live the American dream.

About ten minutes went by before another interruption, from a man with one of the worst mullets I've ever seen. He got exactly one word out of his mouth before the crowd got so loud it was like he'd been hit by a thunderclap.

I thought about that last guy, the fifth one, who had waited long after his buddies had done what they'd come to do. I wondered whether he had realized the futility of their actions and kind of given up whatever he was supposed to do -- but then, he wouldn't have been able to face his cowardly colleagues later, would he?

Then I began wondering what these guys had thought they could accomplish here. Certainly, Dees was not going to stop the work he's been doing for 30+ years. They were clearly outnumbered, with no hope of persuading anyone else in the room of anything. It was also obvious that Dees wasn't going to step down and stop speaking, for it was the power of words and the force of law that Dees has used so successfully to thwart their hate-fueled efforts for so long.

If anything, those five guys may well have caused some in the crowd to join or donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in support of Dees and his team. For when they got home last night, they may have recognized the face of hatred in the mirror, and vowed to redouble their efforts to fight it.

Before his speech, Dees appeared on my KMOX show (without any rude interruptions) to discuss Rosa Parks' legacy, the status of civil rights in the US, the use of the internet to spread hate by supremacist groups, and more. Listen to the conversation here.