Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
What if a well-known hate group had a rally and no one showed up?
That’s what the Kalamazoo Department of Safety hopes will happen Saturday as neo-fascist and white nationalist group The Proud Boys invites its members to rally in downtown Kalamazoo.
An online posting that has been circulating for the past few weeks, invites members of the group to meet for a rally on Aug. 15 at the Arcadia Creek Festival Place in downtown Kalamazoo. In another writing, the group, which apparently got its start in 2016 in New York, calls Kalamazoo “a liberal sh—hole,” providing the only rationale for its members to visit here.
This message threatens Kalamazoo as seen on Signal.
To counter any such development, the Rev. Nathan Dannison and his church, the First Congregational Church of Kalamazoo, have planned a prayer vigil at the festival place before the Proud Boys rally is supposed to begin at 2 p.m. The church has acquired a permit, reserving space at the site for its vigil from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. But the festival site is considered a public park and his permit will not prohibit anyone from entering the space.
“We’ve heard that the Proud Boys were going to have a racist rally at the park and they may or may not be doing that, but I felt that it was an important time to pray for the victims of domestic terror in America and to pray for the young men in the Proud Boys themselves,” Dannison says.
At the same time, he says he’d be surprised if members of the hate group show up.
“I’d say it’s about 50-50,” he says. “I’d be surprised if they showed up. They’re cowards mainly. And so they tend to threaten terror. But given that they are generally cowardly, they tend not to show up.”
He expects to have 50 to 100 people attend his prayer vigil.
Police are taking a different tact. “What I recommend people do is to stay home, away from this particular group, because that’s exactly what they feed off of,” says Vernon Coakley, assistant chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.
Symbols of known hate groups.
Acknowledging that hate groups have a reputation for causing trouble and harassing people they encounter coming to and from such events, Coakley says, “Kalamazoo Public Safety will respond to any civil unrest to keep this city safe. We will use our abilities and the resources we have to keep this city safe.”
At the same time, he says KDPS has no credible evidence that the group will show up in Kalamazoo.
Mayor David Anderson downplayed the likelihood that there will be a rally of the hate group and says he does not want to give it any notoriety. He worries that one online posting may have unnecessarily fanned the flames of concern among local people.
Dannison says his vigil is intended to honor the victims of domestic terrorism, including Heather Heyer who died after being struck by a car at the Unite The Right rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. A man who described himself as a white supremacist deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors on Aug. 12, injuring 19 people and killing Heyer.
In their online postings, the Proud Boys describe themselves as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” They claim that they do not discriminate based upon race or sexual orientation/preference but members of the neo-fascist and misogynistic group have been accused of instigating violence and have been present at white nationalist gatherings including the Charlottesville rally.
The group has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has been known to rail against immigrants, Muslims, Jews, women, People of Color and members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer and Transgender communities.
Dannison says he would expect any Proud Boys members to try to promote their rhetoric, drink alcohol, and then try to assault immigrants and people who are gay, lesbian, or transgender.
“They seem to be very angry about the presence of first- and second-generation immigrants in Kalamazoo,” Dannison says. “Obviously we support and honor those people in Kalamazoo.”
Community activist Andy Argo is among Kalamazoo area residents who hope to see a few hundred people show up to counter any rhetoric of hate.
“The Proud Boys have actually been sharing it on their main national website,” Argo says of information about them coming to Kalamazoo. He says an organizer from eastern Michigan has been encouraging members to come, talking about standing against Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA (anti-fascists).
“This does seem like a legitimate threat,” Argo says.
But Coakley says, “We don’t have any credible information that they are coming. We have seen the circulations of fliers. But we do not know if or how many people will be here. So there’s no definitive information from our intelligence to say they are coming.”
Asked if KDPS has learned specifics about what the group wants to do in Kalamazoo, Coakley says if they show up, “We’re hearing that they’re going to exercise their First Amendment rights (to freedom of speech) at the Arcadia Festival site.”
He says no one from the Proud Boys has filed for a permit to have a public gathering, but Coakley says that is not necessary because Arcadia is a public space and it can be used simultaneously by various members of the public.
“It’s a public park,” Coakley says. “The park is not shut down. People can still freely walk into the park even though an event is going on, no different than Bronson Park. People reserve the bandshell there and things of that nature. But people are still allowed to go into the park.”
He says Kalamazoo Public Safety will be prepared “no different than any other event in the city of Kalamazoo. We will respond to any civil unrest like we always do, per our policy. We will respond accordingly.”
Although he would not provide specifics, he says KDPS always has a plan for how to handle such situations.
“Absolutely we have a plan to respond to any civil unrest or any emergency situation in this city to keep our city, our citizens, and our visitors safe,” he says.
He says the Proud Boys were not on KDPS’ radar until this event.
Although he says he doesn’t think they deserve attention that spreads their notoriety, Dannison says, “Here’s what I know. The Proud Boys attack innocent people. They have attacked children in the past and they want to kill people in our city who are immigrants and who are members of the LGBTQ community. Given that we know that to be the fact, we need to stand up.”
Argo says he has learned that the best way to deal with hate groups is to gather together “and collectively show them the door.”
“I know there are a lot of people who have this idea to just ignore them -- they’ll go away,” he says. “But that’s not how groups like the Proud Boys work. If you ignore them, if you give someone an inch, they’ll take a mile. That’s what groups like this are like. If you don’t confront them, then they can get a foothold in the community, try to start recruiting people, and spread their venomous message.”
He says he is not talking about violence, “I am talking about a community gathering together to indicate, in broad numbers, that they oppose the ideologies of groups like this.”
Of having people attend the prayer vigil, Dannison says, “I honestly do hope that people will show up. To be frank, I think that the Proud Boys themselves, are young men who have no foundation in their lives. … I want us to pray for them as well. Because they are sick young men who need an adult in their lives. They need a grownup to help them. They do these things because they come from broken households and they have no foundation.”
Argo says, “If it does end up being a situation where they don’t show up, that is the direct result of very good and robust counter-organizing. It wasn’t by magic or simply because they simply decided to do a prank.”