Racist attack on race/racism town hall leaves organizers shaken, resolved to continue

A town hall to discuss race and racism suddenly had a very real lesson on the topic from cyber hackers last week. 

Grand Haven’s Momentum Center and the (Anti) Racism Task Force kicked off their yearlong series of virtual town halls with the question: Why do we need to discuss race? But the conversation couldn’t get started before participants were accosted with rapid-fire shouting of the n-word and other racial slurs as well as “graphic pornography,” says Barbara Lee VanHorssen, whose title at the center is Experi-Mentor (executive director).

“It was unrelenting. … It was traumatic.” VanHorssen says. “If anything, the twisted kind of silver lining is they proved just how important these conversations are.” 

The Momentum Center has brought together 20 other organizations to form the (Anti) Racism Task Force and will conduct monthly Town Hall Meetings on Race and Racism.

The discussions will inform the (Anti) Racism Task Force’s next initiatives.

And there will be more discussions, VanHorssen says.

“It makes me more resolute than ever to keep having these dialogs,” she says.

The virtual town halls will be the fourth Monday of every month for the next year on video conferencing platform Zoom. The Oct. 26 town hall will discuss racism in the media, and the Nov. 23 town hall will discuss ethnic intimidation. Other topics planned for the year include criminal justice, education, business, health care, and mental health. For more information or to register, visit momentumcentergh.org/town-hall-racism.

Organizers are taking steps to ensure they cannot be hacked again.

The incident has been reported to area law enforcement and anyone with information on the perpetrator or perpetrators should contact the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety or the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office.

A hacker or hackers (there’s no way to know how many there were) infiltrated the event by legitimately registering for it and posting the “join” link on Twitter. However, they were also able to circumvent Zoom’s safety measures such as organizers’ ability to mute every participant except the speaker.

The meeting had to be shut down and restarted and eventually locked, so only invitees could join.
Some who attended the virtual town hall were initially on the fence about whether race needs to be front and center, VanHorssen says. The attack put that to rest.

“It makes it undeniable,” she says.

The problem of racism is not one of identifying a handful of racists, VanHorssen says.

“We’re dealing with a system that has allowed that kind of break in the human family to occur,” she says.
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