Overcoming hate: How Lower Bucks officials, community members address race-related incidents

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TIMES FILE PHOTO / Community members gathered for a vigil after race-related incidents were reported at Council Rock High School North in November.

On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, a Bensalem resident discovered literature that had been left in his driveway purporting to be from the Ku Klux Klan. The pamphlet denounced King as a “Communist pervert” who was unworthy of the honor of a federal holiday.

The incident occurred two weeks before Council Rock community members held the first meeting of the school district’s Diversity and Inclusion Citizens’ Council. The group was created in response to a spate of racially charged incidents at Council Rock High School North just after the 2016 presidential election.

In one week, there were reports of a Latina student receiving notes demanding she return to Mexico. Additionally, swastikas and anti-LGBT graffiti were discovered in school bathrooms.

These episodes reflect similar incidents that have been reported throughout the country in recent months.

In particular, the pamphlet incident raises questions about the line society draws between free speech and hate speech, and how occurrences of the latter are addressed.

One person, who spoke with the Bensalem Times on condition of anonymity, expressed disappointment with the official response to their report of receiving the anti-MLK literature. In an email, the person noted what he called a “complete lack of concern for this incident in and of itself.”

The resident had called to report the incident, but not much could be done because the person did not feel there was any imminent danger. The person declined to make a formal report because doing so would make the resident’s personal information public.

The Times previously reported on the incident and verified photos of the literature. However, there is no official record of the incident in Bensalem.

In a brief interview a week after the discovery of the document, Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran requested the public’s cooperation in the event a similar episode occurs in the future.

“If anyone gets stuff like this, I wish they would contact the local police department,” he stated.

When asked about the distinction between free speech and hate speech, Harran noted that “there’s a line between the two” and that “people do have the right not to be harassed and annoyed.”

For example, the public safety director mentioned that the drawing of a swastika or the placement of a KKK sign could fall into the province of criminal mischief.

Barbara Simmons, executive director of the Peace Center in Langhorne, identifies the Bensalem literature drop as a “bias incident.”

A bias incident is conduct, speech or expression motivated, in whole or in part, by bias or prejudice, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Unlike a hate crime, a bias incident does not involve criminal activity.

“Bias incidents aren’t hate crimes,” said Simmons, but noted that such occurrences “signal that a segment of our society has bought into white supremacy.”

Going forward, groups like the Peace Center face a steep challenge as they attempt to stimulate a healthier and more productive dialogue about race in a polarized climate.

Already, the Peace Center has arranged meetings with politicians and collaborated with schools in order to promote a more inclusive environment. But that’s just a start.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’re not really prepared to do that work,” Simmons admitted.

Kristin Chapin, associate director of the YWCA in Bucks County, said when a statement “crosses the line to marginalize a certain population, I think it becomes hate speech.”

She also supports the idea of dialogues to foster mutual understanding.

“I think we need to invite people from a diverse set of backgrounds…to have these conversations,” she said. However, “People need to come in being willing to listen” and must unshackle themselves from “just their point of view.”

However, the climate has coarsened in the internet age, which has depersonalized social interactions.

“People are really digging in their heels,” observed Peggy Dator, chairwoman for the Bucks County Human Relations Council. “It’s really easy to say something about someone without saying it to their face.”

Moreover, discussions about race might devolve simply because different parties cannot agree on a basic set of facts.

“It’s hard to have that conversation when people want to retreat to debunked stereotypes about black people,” remarked Dr. Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Beavers views citizenship as a “collaborative enterprise” and advocates for “a discussion that involves left-wing, right-wing and centrist ideas.”

Meanwhile, Simmons and the Peace Center will continue encouraging inclusive dialogues about racial issues. They have already hosted such events in Newtown and Bristol, where members of different communities can speak with each other and, in some cases, with local law enforcement.

“I want them in every neighborhood,” Simmons said of these events. “We welcome everyone to the table as long as they’re respectful.” ••

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