Editorials, Opinion

Don’t let hate take root in our hills

The YWCA Charleston Race to End Racism was this past Saturday. The 5K run/1 mile walk, now in its eighth year, raises funds for community engagement and racial equity and inclusion programming. The YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) has chapters across the U.S., and the one in Charleston runs a women’s shelter, complete with a career readiness program, and provides domestic violence services, child development services and support for seniors. More than anything, YWCA and its facilities are a safe place for women and children of all backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the Race to the End Racism — and all the good work that YWCA Charleston does — was overshadowed by the appearance of white nationalist marchers parading through the streets of the capital city with upside-down American flags, Confederate flags and flags associated with the hate-group Patriot Front. The Anti Defamation League describes Patriot Front as “a white supremacist group whose members maintain that their ancestors conquered America and bequeathed it to them alone. They define themselves as American fascists or American nationalists who are focused on preserving America’s identity as a European-American nation.”

These marchers wore nearly identical khaki pants, dark blue or black polo shirts and ball caps; many wore sunglasses and white neck gaiters to hide their identities — which tells us that they are well aware that what they are doing, while not illegal, is morally wrong and they don’t want to suffer the personal consequences of their hateful views.

We’re not sure if it makes the situation better or worse, but there’s a possibility some, if not all, of these white supremacists came from out of state to counter the Race to End Racism. Witnesses saw them unload from two U-Haul trucks in Daniel Boone Park before marching to the feet of the Stonewall Jackson statue on Kanawha Boulevard.

If all this is sounding strangely familiar, it should. In 2022, police in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, stopped a U-Haul truck with 31 men inside. Pictures from that scene show the men wearing khakis, dark polos, ball caps and white neck gaiters. It was later determined the men came from at least 10 outside states and met at a hotel before loading into the U-Haul.

Police said, based on the gear and paperwork found, law enforcement strongly believed the men were associated with Patriot Front and were on their way to “riot” at a public park where a Pride event was being held. Among the gear police confiscated were shields and at least one smoke grenade. Police also found a document “very similar to an operations plan that a police or military group would put together for an event” that indicated the group planned to cause disturbances in multiple locations throughout the city.

In that regard, Charleston and West Virginia are incredibly lucky there was no violence on Saturday.

The First Amendment protects the right to peacefully demonstrate, as these men did, so we cannot fault the City of Charleston, as some have, for not stopping the march.

And we — as West Virginians, as members of the public and as civic leaders — cannot stop them from spreading their vile messages. But we can counter them with messages of love and acceptance. We can firmly condemn their hate speech and the racist values they seek to uphold. We can say that such hatred is not welcome in West Virginia and that we will not allow it to take root in our hills.

But then we must follow through by not nurturing an environment — social or political — that makes outside agitators like Patriot Front feel welcome.