January 29 was a special day in Union, New Jersey. Kean University's Human Rights Conference, Combating Hatred, was delivered to a capacity and overflow crowd, in the Wilkins Theatre on campus, more than 1100 strong.
Drawn not only from the University student body and faculty, the audience included secondary school students from across the state, as well as activists and educators working with students and adults in corporate environments. This conference, Kean's third annual, was dedicated to the work done in New Jersey, the United States and the world to combat hatred in its many forms, some of them old and some of them very hi-tech.
Dr. Hank Kaplowitz, Special Assistant to the President for the Human Rights Institute at Kean welcomed everyone to the conference and marveled at the growth since they began. He also mentioned that interested parties would have an opportunity to visit the special exhibit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights featured in the soon to open Human Rights Institute. Dr. Mark Lender, Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs offered his greetings as well and we were off to an auspicious start.
The keynote speaker was Morris Dees from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dees is a modest gentleman, with a hint of a southern accent, who talks about his work as ongoing, though SPLC has been around for more than 30 years. He talked about his early work, which led to the ultimate bankrupting of the Ku Klux Klan. "Everyone is prejudiced," Dees said. "We all prejudge." Since 2000, more than 925 groups oriented toward hatred have been tabulated and more find their way to followers every day. Dees pointed out that we are role models in many ways and, as we go through our daily routines, who knows who is looking to us as examples. Whether or not you have children, it's a weighty responsibility.
Mark Weitzman is the Director of Government Affairs, as well as Director of the Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism, for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He also serves as chief representative for the Center, at the United Nations. He gave us an eloquent presentation, augmented by actual websites where hatred is spread, not only in the form of sites spreading
racial hatred, but also via misogynist sites masquerading as "father's rights" groups, and even games in which the object is to shoot men, and even pregnant women, to prevent border crossings. Most shocking perhaps is the fact that the very social networking sites that connect us to long lost friends and family are the same fertile fields where disenchanted or troubled people are preyed upon by tech savvy hate mongers. Even prominent white supremacists, like David Duke, continue to seek local political office as springboards for their grabs for power and mind-share-rather than market share.
There was a brief break for lunch and we all returned to the Wilkins Theatre for the final session. Dave D'Amico began his career as a uniformed cop on the mean streets of Asbury Park. He has taken a variety of positions, including in undercover drug and prostitution work, in order to make the city a much safer haven for people who live and work and play there. Currently a detective with the Bias Crimes office in Monmouth County, D'Amico discussed how, every single day, he has educated himself to walk in the victims' shoes, as he investigates whether they have suffered from bias incidents, which is bad enough, or bias crimes. D'Amico used the entire stage as he engaged 1000 people in a dialogue about the importance of being that still, small voice. A young man named Ahmed committed suicide, when he was not even a teenager, because children in his new school accused him of being gay. "We'll never know whether Ahmed was gay or not, because he can't speak for himself," D'Amico has said, "and no one stood up to speak for him, to tell the others not to call him names." Further, the "n" word shouldn't be used by anyone, D'Amico continued, showing a graphic photograph of a lynching. While it is possible to take back some words for empowerment, this kind of language demeans the people who use it no matter who they are, is his opinion. Words like the "n" word made some people feel that it was okay to drag James Byrd behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, still alive, until a pass over a drainage ditch separated one of his arms and head from his body and ended his suffering. This happened the same year that Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, and left for dead. All in the name of the "f" word, the "n" word and hatred.
D'Amico's speech was the most inspiring for me. While Dees and Weitzman framed the struggle in historic, national, and international terms, D'Amico brought home to me why language is important and what I can do to change one person at a time. Thanks, Dave! Thanks Morris, Mark, and Kean University. I've already reserved the date for next year's conference. I'll see YOU there!"