WHILE attempting to direct traffic away from the area of the North Toledo riot in mid-October, the Rev. Otis Gordon of Warren AME Church and I watched events unfold from a block away. A feeling of overwhelming sadness came over me.
In 1981, I began full time ministry at Wesley United Methodist Church on Stickney Avenue, just two blocks from Mulberry Street and Central Avenue.
I had walked that neighborhood so many times. I knew many of the children and youth of that community in the early 1980s. I had coached basketball, taken them on youth retreats, and sent them off to camp. Now many years removed the memories came flooding back.
The North Toledo neighborhood that was the Oct. 15 center of the confrontation between neo-Nazis and hundreds of counter protesters is one of Toledo's most integrated. It has many finely kept houses, a strong neighborhood association, and a proud history. It is hardly the kind of place one would expect a riot.
Yet here I watched a landmark neighborhood bar go up in flames as hundreds of people were hanging around. Most of the people I met along Central Avenue were shaking their heads in disbelief. The anger and frustration of so many young people caught most by surprise. Over and over I heard people ask, "Why did they allow them (neo-Nazis) to come into our turf?" Residents felt that their rights and community had been violated.
The neo-Nazis came to spread their hate and got exactly what they were looking for. These groups feed off the attention they can bring to themselves. If they can provoke a response, so much the better.
However, just as disturbing were many of the counter protesters, who came from outside the city. There were reports that white counter protesters, dressed in black, were working hard to rile up the young African-Americans in the crowd. Not one person from outside Toledo was arrested as they fled from that which they helped create. But many of our young people were arrested.
Lost in the violence was the wonderfully peaceful "Lagrange Community Unity Celebration," taking place just blocks away. Cosponsored by Lagrange Community Development Corp. and the Erase the Hate Coalition, residents, with the staff of Lagrange Community Development Corp. and many volunteers from across the city, had worked all week to bring together guest artists, activities, and food.
Many organizations stepped up. First Unitarian Church and Epworth United Methodist each contributed $1,000 to help with expenses. Families came and enjoyed a great event. Children created art works. Pizza and sandwiches were devoured.
Of course the joy and the success of that celebration were overshadowed by the events just blocks away. It is clear that just under the surface of our community lies great frustration. Too many young people still do not have hope for the future. Race still is a real issue that is not being addressed. The police are too often seen as the enemy. Many young adults are unemployed or underemployed.
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
These words are from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the supreme irony that today, Dec. 10, is Human Rights Day, the day the neo-Nazis would return to Toledo. On a day in which we would recognize the rights of all people, a small group of misguided souls who would build themselves up by tearing down others will once again bring their message of hate.
It is doubly ironic since it is the respect for the right of free speech that enables them to be able to denigrate others. Yet as despicable as their message, we must not allow ourselves to be brought down to their level. To stand across from them, hurling back insults with rocks, only brings the counter-protester down to the level of those who perpetrate the hate.
Let us take the opportunity this day to teach our young people about human rights for all people. Rather than confront the neo-Nazis on the street, let us counter them by living up to the highest values of most of our faith traditions, by committing ourselves to promoting human dignity, quality education, health care for all, and jobs that provide living wages. Let us teach that diversity makes us stronger.
We could begin by embracing the vision of the Erase the Hate Campaign, a collaboration of Toledo-area educational, religious, and community organizations and agencies, to create a community where all races, religions, and cultures live in peace, harmony, and mutual respect.
Our work is cut out for us if we truly want to change the future. The question before us is, will we arise to the occasion or will we once again return to business as usual?
People of faith, in particular, need to step forward. It is encouraging that the faith community came together for a prayer vigil last evening. Following the Oct. 15 riot, many churches in North Toledo formed a new association called NEMA, North End Ministerial Alliance, to address the needs of the community.
Churches in our neighborhoods across the city need to find more ways to make connections with young people. Suburban churches need to form partnerships with struggling urban churches, helping provide the needed resources.
Urban churches can help suburban churches understand better the realities that many of our children, youth, and adults face. We need to once again deal with the issue of racism and not pretend that it is something of the past.
It is critical that civic authorities, community organizations, and faith communities work together to create a better future.
Let us celebrate Human Rights Day by recommitting ourselves to work for justice, peace and the rights of all people.
The Rev. Larry C. Clark is executive director of Toledo Area Ministries and chairman of the Erase the Hate Coalition.