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TEDxHartlandHill: ‘Community is also a verb’

By Julia Purdy

How is community created, and how is it sustained? That was the overarching theme of the inaugural TEDxHartland Hill program, held last Saturday at Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock, titled, “Community: It’s also a verb.”

Twelve speakers from various ethnic backgrounds offered answers from the perspectives of artists, authors, professional negotiators, immigration coordinators, journalists, business owners, religious leaders, health practitioners and nonprofit directors.

The daytime program was full and so were the seats at the small theater at the Billings Farm and Museum visitor center. Preregistration was required and the attendees appeared to be drawn mainly from the greater Woodstock area. After welcomes by Vermont state Senator Alison Clarkson and TEDxHartlandHill Executive Director Deborah Greene, the speakers followed in groups of three with breaks in between, including a generous slot for lunch and networking.

Some speakers related how they moved to Vermont as outliers some years ago and have found their niche here. Others spoke of the professional work they do to bridge sometimes fundamental cultural and ideological divisions and to expose and heal the effects of targeted abuse.

The final trio of the day focused strongly on the need to build and sustain community by transcending divisions that mask our common humanity.

The Reverend Dr. Leon Dunkley, Universalist Chapel pastor, led off with the need to “introduce ourselves to one another,” followed by enlightened forgiveness.

That theme was amplified by the next speaker, whom none of us would normally meet face to face: a former white supremacist, who now gives public talks about his experience in an effort to combat hate by understanding its roots and to deter the impressionable from joining such groups. Canadian Tony McAleer was executive director of the organization Life After Hate and works with law enforcement in the effort to stem the proliferation of hate groups.

He has published a book, “The Cure for Hate: A Former White Supremacist’s Journey from Violent Extremism to Radical Compassion” (Amazon, 2019). His is one of a growing number of voices that, as he put it, were stopped “on the road to Damascus” and now offer help to oppose the hate culture. Daisy Khan, a Muslim woman and editor of “WISEup: Knowledge Ends Extremism,” wrote in her foreword to McAleer’s book: “Because our era prizes excess over expertise, we need to hear the voices of those who … can advise us on how to penetrate the noise and reach the hearts of those who can be reached.”

‘Community’ can be the antidote to division/racism/extremism of all kinds

The spread of hate groups has seemingly taken the nation by surprise, although their numbers have been growing steadily for decades.

Following domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh’s lethal attack on the Oklahoma City federal building, lawyer Morris Dees, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, published “Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat” (1996), 10 years of research into domestic terrorist groups. The book did not seem to get much traction at the time. In fact, a reviewer for Goodreads wrote in 2018: “Morris writes as if American Militias are a bigger criminal threat than illegal aliens or inner city blacks, which is laughable” — and goes on to blame government, which supposedly knew all along that the Oklahoma attack would happen. Conspiracy theories in those days, before social media exploded on the scene, were muffled — the fare of late-late-night radio rants absorbed subliminally by insomniacs, mainly in the West.

It would be only a matter of time before the cancer would metastasize into mainstream America, and each community has had to fight its own battle, win or lose.

It’s understandable and desirable that small towns should be able to maintain tranquillity in the midst of global turmoil, especially in the “hill country” of the Northeast, which trades heavily on tourism, recreation and second-home ownership among those who seek a quiet pace of life amid scenic beauty and daily life conducted on first-name-basis.

But those very qualities also include privacy, and the respect for privacy — a core tenet of country living — can in any year attract an element that seeks to take advantage of that amenity as a refuge for their activities, resulting in a bombshell explosion in paradise. Yet the movement’s hold can be broken by united, informed local resistance.

“Local resistance” can take many forms, but they all add up to first, recognizing the bully, and second, standing up to it. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, who dissolves into a puddle leaving only her shoes when Dorothy douses her with a bucket of water, the bully shrivels up and dies when confronted.

Nor is Vermont — a solid “blue state” — immune. As of 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified two such organizations in Vermont: a neo-Nazi group and a white nationalist Patriot Front group. When the story of Daniel Banyai and his activity in West Pawlet, Vermont, broke in 2018 or so, having lived in the Pacific Northwest next door to a skinhead compound, I was interested and started to follow it. I suspected that Banyai was not operating a family-friendly, recreational shooting range; indeed, it is now recognized to be a tactical training center — Slate Ridge — ostensibly for private security contractors, in West Pawlet, with a focus on “professional gunfighting.” It should be pointed out that Banyai does not claim to be a white supremacist, and citizens have been informed that Banyai’s activities so far are non-criminal. (Vermont does not have an anti-harassment law.)

But his promotions overtly appeal to a clientele that might include vigilantes and self-styled “patriots.” These groups consider themselves to inherit the role of the “well-ordered militias” referenced in the Second Amendment. On Oct. 29, 2020, VTDigger ran a story (“Militia training site terrifies neighbors in West Pawlet”) that amplifies the intentions of Slate Ridge. To illustrate the story, Digger published a screen shot of a firearms display accompanied by little text boxes that read: “Time for the local militia to step up,” “All of us are ready,” and “We are standing ready and always vigilant.”

In April 2020, Slate Ridge’s Facebook page invited supporters to attend a Pawlet Select Board meeting to “advocate for Second Amendment, Free Speech, Freedom of Choice” and recommended equipping themselves with “primary and secondary” weapons and a military combat trauma first aid kit.

Banyai’s neighbors are Vermonters used to the outdoor life, comfortable with guns, who chose the woods and fields of West Pawlet for its natural peace and beauty. But they felt disturbed by what was going on next door.

They also do not feel safe. Their complaints have only exacerbated Banyai’s threats.

The neighbors have not kept quiet, either. They have turned to authorities with credible accounts of harassment and intimidation. One of Slate Ridge’s training exercises covers how to shoot into a vehicle. He was using an actual vehicle as a target, in one case a pickup truck with “Hulett Trucking,” the name of a neighbor’s business, painted on its door. On one occasion, when a neighbor was posting her land, she was followed by “a group of armed men,” she told the Manchester Journal. There are perimeter patrols, as if war games are being enacted. A neighbor who owns horses is afraid to ride along the road.

Pawlet relies on constables for local spats, with the county sheriff and Vermont State Police for muscle. So far, Pawlet’s only recourse has been its zoning ordinance and the cumbersome and mystifying process of Environmental Court. Banyai has flouted or sidestepped every attempt to curb him.

Domestic terrorism, whether fueled by race hatred, paranoia or misplaced patriotism, is emerging as a force to reckon with. Slate Ridge echoes the presence of similar groups on local communities elsewhere in the country.

I had lived for 20 years in Washington state, 10 of those years next door to the Aryan Nations (a.k.a. Church of Jesus Christ Christian), a neo-Nazi enclave in Idaho that attracted both seasoned white nationalist extremists and ignorant young skinheads, giving them shelter, training and a base of operation. Richard Butler was their guru; the surrounding communities knew they were there and for the most part simply avoided them, while being victimized periodically. Until one day, when a mother and son drove past the compound. Their old car backfired, the alert sentries took it for gunshots, and jumped the pair, holding them at gunpoint.

The Southern Poverty Law Center under Morris Dees has been the orca to the shark of domestic terrorism. SPLC sued the Aryan Nations on behalf of the victims, who survived, but the Aryan Nations as an organization did not; it was put out of business. The jury ruled against Butler for negligence in supervising his guards; but it assessed damages of $6.3 million against Aryan Nations and confiscated the 20-acre compound, turning it over to the aggrieved family, who later sold it.

That was in 1998.

On January 28, 2017, Billings Farm and Museum screened “Welcome to Leith,” an indie documentary released Dec. 15, 2015 about the attempted takeover of a tiny community (pop. 24 at the time) in North Dakota by Craig Cobb, a white nationalist leader with ambitions to seize the town government and establish a safe haven for neo-Nazis.

Though tiny, Leith did have a mayor-city council form of governance and its rural, mainly blue-collar population included an interracial family, well accepted in the community. Residents chose Leith for its peacefulness and the openness of the High Plains, to escape urban problems. They owned their homes, kept livestock, hunted, worked in the oil fields or away from home in office jobs, raised their children. One neighbor told the filmmaker, “This is rural America, everybody has each other’s backs.”

Craig Cobb arrived in Leith around 2015. At first the townspeople welcomed Cobb; he seemed like a quiet guy, a loner, and, like themselves, in need of peace and quiet. Then he started to buy up waste land and derelict property and recruited members via white nationalist websites.

The Dutton family moved in next door to Cobb, with one child. In the film, Mr. Dutton sports a tiny Hitler moustache and proudly identifies himself as a neo-Nazi. Mr. Dutton planted a row of white-supremacist flags in front of his house, in case anyone disbelieved him.

In turn, the townspeople felt they had to start carrying weapons, since Leith is in the geographical center of the 1,600-square-mile Grant County with one sheriff and three deputies, remote from major highways—possibly one reason why Cobb chose it. One neighbor told the filmmaker he felt he must take his whole family with him when he left for work—he did not feel safe leaving them alone.

The townspeople presented a united front. They resisted Cobb with every means at their disposal, from town meetings to law enforcement to condemning his property, which was substandard to begin with, for health violations. Cobb and Dutton responded by patrolling the streets with loaded guns.

Ultimately, the issue was resolved by two developments: Cobb lasted until 2013 when he was arrested and charged with terrorism for confronting a neighbor with both a shotgun and a rifle, and five years later, as his followers continued to make political inroads, the voters of Leith passed a referendum to dissolve the municipality and come under the protective wing of the county.

Leith, North Dakota, is an object lesson for small, relatively powerless communities to resist becoming victims of the burgeoning domestic terrorist movement. The Craig Cobbs, Richard Butlers and Daniel Banyais of the world should not feel that Vermont is a safe haven for them. They are difficult to dislodge once established and for that reason, Vermont towns must consider putting precautions in place, because it can indeed “happen here.”

Postscript: For the Tricia Goddard Show’s “Race in America” series, Craig Cobb agreed to a DNA analysis to confirm his Aryan genetic identity. The test results showed that he is only “86% European,” the rest being “sub-Saharan African.” He took the news gracefully in public while maintaining “oil and water don’t mix,” as Tricia Goddard and another guest, both black women, as well as the audience collapsed in laughter.

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