How Love Can Overturn Hate, Following Pittsburgh Anti-Semitism Murders


I am not Jewish. Either by birth or religion.

Still, I felt compelled to attend last night’s public memorial for eleven people who were murdered in a Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. The service was held at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, where thousands packed the hall and thousands more stood in the chilly rain outside. Once I managed to squeeze inside, I thought how fitting that Abraham Lincoln’s words from his Nov. 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address are inscribed on its walls.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

I live ninety minutes south of Pittsburgh. I still remember family trips we took there, beginning in the early 1970s. But more recently, one of my daughters reintroduced me to the melting pot that is Steel City, a place built and inhabited by immigrants from all walks of life. Thanks to her, I probably spent more time there during the last six years than all the other years combined.

So I felt the city’s loss keenly.

At first, I tried not to think about it. Then I learned that four police officers who tried to stop the gunman were shot in the line of duty. My entire adult life has been spent with and around law enforcement, so I felt a sense of camaraderie, for them and their families.

Finally, I heard that the victims’ names had been released—and I thought about all the people I had met during recent visits to Pittsburgh. Wonderful people, many of whom are Jewish. I recalled the warm and cozy times my daughter and I dined at Dobra Tea, one of her favorite Squirrel Hill haunts.

Given that, there was no way I could not go. Paying my respects was the least I could do.

I don’t hate anyone. However, I do hate the actions that some people take, like happened Saturday afternoon when Robert Bowers, 46, opened fire and killed eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Why did this happen? Because Bowers looked at those parishioners and saw only a label: Jewish.

It also happened because there really is evil among us. I know a little about evil, having covered a local murder here a few years ago. Evil is the only explanation for how two bright, talented and pretty teenage girls could murder a third teen who had once been a close friend.

Hate is evil.

Following the 2016 presidential election, my blog was one of the first about hate speech, a particular flavor of evil. I tweeted and blogged about two gay men who were the target of a hateful, homophobic act. (Ironically, I, too, received a few hate-filled tweets after I reported this news.)

Since then, hatred for people who are different than us has only increased. Especially is this true for those of the Jewish faith.

“Us,” as I use it, is anyone who aligns himself or identifies with, a specific group that spews hate speech toward people who are different, or with whose views they disagree. Not everyone who identifies with a particular label (think alt-right or even Democrat or Republican) feels or acts on hatred—but many of them do.

I know about hatred inspired by labels, because I grew up in a religious home. And while wearing that label as a child of eight, a woman chased a friend of mine who was thirteen and me from her porch—with a broom. About ten years ago, I was with a developmentally disabled youth, knocking on the door of another home, in a different community. In return, the man let his vicious dogs loose to chase us away.

In both cases, we didn’t speak badly, or retaliate, against either homeowner. We acknowledged that, while morally wrong, their actions arose from ignorance. Because, after all, we came in peace, offering a message of love. Had they stopped to listen, or think, they would have realized this. And perhaps our compassion would have won them over. I like to think so.

Hate only incites more hate. A person filled with hate for his fellow man will only spew more hatred, if that’s all he surrounds himself with. But compassion can change people. Even a hate mongering, conspiracy theorist like Bowers. So far we know he spewed hate for Jews and immigrants (whom he and some others have taken to labeling “invaders”). He did this online, at a social media site called “Gab.”

Given that none of Bowers’ neighbors really knew him and people who attended high school with him recalled him as a loner—if they remembered him at all—is proof that a little compassion could have gone a long way. For instance, mental health experts know that isolation is dangerous. Whether self-imposed or not, people cut off from family and friends tend to become unstable.

How could they not? Humans are tribal people. We came from family units, and were designed to be part of a society. That’s why people like Bowers are called anti-social. Another label, one that need not exist—if only people would stop and pay more attention to the outcasts and loners among us.

I am reminded that when the Jews and others were loaded into cattle cars and placed into concentration camps during World War II, they were known not by their names—but by numbers, and labels sewn onto their prison garb. A yellow triangle for Jews, a purple one for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the letter “P” for Polish prisoners.

Labels allow us to dehumanize our fellow man: white, black, Jewish, Catholic, straight, gay, handicapped, decrepit, rich, poor, or immigrant. What if we stop using labels altogether, and simply view each other as we are: human beings? That is to say, people from the same species, who are just like you and me.

We are all just human beings in need of kindness, especially now.

What if, every time we’re in the company of someone who appears different from us—whether we’re merely passing each other in a crowded crosswalk or sitting down in a classroom, sports stadium or movie theatre—we instead think: this person is my brother? My sister?

Or, what if we go a step further and speak to those strangers? Invite them for coffee or a meal? Offer them a shoulder to cry on?

Ah, but that’s when the power for change really happens. R&B musician Daryl Davis knows this. “Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting,” he told the Daily Mail in 2013.

I heard Davis speak a few months ago, while listening to an episode of Snap Judgment. I was fascinated as I heard the blues musician tell how he became friends with a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan. That man later resigned his post. Why? Because through his friendship with Davis, a black man, that previously racist white man came to know a basic human truth: no matter our race, religion, gender, or ethnic background, we are more alike than we are different.

Knowing this truth, and then acting on it, is how love can overturn hate.

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Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


People Cite Trump as Reports of Hate Crimes Against Muslims and Gays Increase After Election

First came the stealthy knock, carried out under cover of darkness.

Then the sound of footsteps, running away from the house.

And then, the horrible message: “TRUMP is our president now. Get out of our neighborhood now FAGGOTS!!”

I hate that word. I refuse to utter it and hate to even type it. Or share it on social media, which I felt forced to do today.

Corey Hurley found the note, printed in black ink on a piece of plain notebook paper. It was lying at his feet when he opened the door after being awakened at 3 a.m. Thursday morning.
“I was terrified,” Hurley said during a telephone interview. “I knew things were going to start getting a little crazy . . . but I didn’t know it was going to (happen here).”

When I first read the note, posted on a stranger’s Facebook page, I was carried back to 1992. To the day when I took time off work to visit the principal at Kingwood Elementary School, an hour away from Clarksburg – and begged administrators to stop the harassment and name calling. The same name as appeared on the paper found at Hurley’s feet, paper that any child in America might use to complete a homework assignment. The same word directed at my son, Zach, then age eight.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the last 24 hours have seen a significant increase in reports of hate speech and hate crimes around the country. Most have been directed at Muslims, but some in the gay community are being targeted, too.

Like happened to Hurley – and his partner, Kyle Chester.

And my son, who in didn’t know even what sex was at age eight. Much less sexual orientation. All he knew was that the boys in his class didn’t like him. And my visits to his school, and even later, a letter from my children’s therapist, did little to change that.

“This one that you sent me (that Hurley and Chester received) looks like one of the more aggressive that I’ve seen on the anti-gay front,” Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said.

That unit monitors hate crime traffic. Beirich said the Harrison County case is one of “many, many instances we’re hearing about across the country, where people are seemingly victims of what appear to be hate crimes and reference Trump.”
This is the first time since 2008, when another President took office. “We haven’t seen an outbreak of what looks like hate incidents since Obama was elected,” Beirich said, “when something similar happened.”

But then, the SPLC saw a “rash of hate incidents (against) black people,” because some people were angry about having a black President.

It’s a different dynamic now, though. “In this case,” Beirich said, “people who look like they support Trump or have sympathies with Trump are attacking minorities.”

Numerous reports have been fielded, she said, of “Muslims having their headscarves pulled off and a ton of incidents in schools . . . there seems to be a rash of these incidents across the nation.”

By the time Zach was in high school, the situation was no better. “I always got threatened in high school. I didn’t tell you because you would have just made it worse.”

One day during a break from theatre practice, Zach was walking outside near the football field. The players were tossing a ball around when “one of them threw the ball at my head, and very narrowly missed me.” Zach threw the football “all the way across the football field so they had to go into the woods to get it.”

Some of the players approached Zach as he walked back into the school. One boy wanted to fight. “So I just stood up to them and let him get into my face and I wouldn’t back down.” The football player turned and walked away.

Hurley, a lifelong Harrison County, West Virginia, resident, has never experienced this kind of violence. “It’s always been more accepting,” he said. “I’ve never had any problems with my sexuality from people before, so I was kind of shocked to see that it happened here in Clarksburg.”

Frightened and shocked, Hurley woke up Chester, who took action. The Lexington, Kentucky, native made sure their home was secure – and then told Hurley they had to call the police.

They did. Chester spoke to Deputy Chief James Chamberlain, with the Clarksburg City Police Department. And patrol cars drove by “a couple of times” afterward, but that’s all. When Chester called later this morning, an administrative worker told him the police couldn’t do anything else. Not until, Chester said, they had “concrete evidence as to where it came from or who did it.”

It’s difficult to understand how police could gather concrete evidence when, 12 hours later, no officer had shown up to even begin the investigation. I tried to reach Chamberlain, but he did not return my call. However, not long after, Hurley and Chester did get a phone call. They were told to go to the Clarksburg police station and file an official report. A “very nice” officer collected the hateful note left at their door.

So now, the investigation into a potential hate crime has begun.

Beirich said it’s hard not to link this kind of hatred with the President-elect. “Trump is referenced in some way. If you’re going to use the word ‘Trump,’ you obviously think this is somehow connected to your support of the President-elect . . . Given Trump’s xenophobic, racist, and so on comments during the campaign,” she said, “it’s not surprising that some people would feel emboldened to do these things.”

While the SPLC doesn’t yet have a tally for how much hate speech, or how many hate crimes have occurred since Trump became President-elect, Beirich said it’s “several dozen.”

They don’t yet know how serious it is, but sadly, incidents like these are happening in America’s schools. At all grade levels. “We’re particularly concerned about stuff happening in schools, involving children,” Beirich said. Muslim students, especially, are being targeted. Being told to “get out of the country.”

The SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program has specific information available for teachers, to help them deal with the backlash.

“It’s tragic to see this happening,” Beirich said, while urging all victims to report such hatred to police, as well as the SPLC. And urging police to officially investigate.

“Any of those kids could have kicked my (butt),” Zach said. “I stood up to them – no, I didn’t back down from them. There’s a big difference.”

I asked him to clarify.

Zach did. “Standing up to someone is when you realize that something bad is happening and you actually confront them about it. Not backing down is just standing your ground if someone confronts you.”

I asked him if it worked.

“It definitely helped,” Zach said. “If I had acted in a different manner, maybe more submissive, they would have tried to do more. But if you let them know you’re not going to back down, they have a little more respect for you.”

Respect. That’s what this boils down to. It’s all Hurley and Chester really want, too. So they’re getting their friends involved, to help spread this message:

“We’re human beings, too, just like everybody else,” Chester said, “and we deserve the same rights and respect that anybody else does, in any neighborhood across the country.”

Editor’s Note: My website is being revamped, and more changes are in the works. So I hope you’ll pardon the mess and be patient, as I iron out all the kinks.

* * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

Angelou: it takes courage to survive

Having waited more than 20 years to hear Maya Angelou speak, I was not disappointed when she appeared at West Virginia University Friday night. I doubt the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, among many other books, knows how to disappoint.

I was a little surprised she was so funny (Her stories about flying on commercial airlines versus traveling by private bus were hilarious!) and amazed at her ability to recall so much information. It makes me yearn to be 83, so I can know that much. (Okay, maybe not quite that mature.) How did she cram all the poetry and other stuff in there, anyway? Apparently, it was because she was a reader. And a believer: not only did her mother and other loved ones believe in her as a child, but she believes in her own abilities, and the ability of the human brain, since it is–as she said–far more powerful than any computer out there.

These are important reminders for anyone who claims to not like reading, or who prefers playing video games or hanging out at social networking sites. Especially in this day and age when reading–which expands not just your horizons, but also your brain–takes time, and there are no shortcuts.

In case you’ve never had the privilege of seeing her in person, she is graceful and elegant, and holds herself well. (At age 15, she was already six-feet tall.) She wore a black gown and dark glasses and had her hair covered with a classy-looking wrap. (I think it’s ironic that, except for one Mountain Stage performance, I’ve never sat that close to the stage before. Yet somehow, I ended up with a seat smack in the center, two rows away.)

Here are a few points I took away from her speech: First and foremost, it takes courage to survive–especially if you’ve been abused, as she was at age seven. Second, we all have something to give to someone else; she calls it “being the rainbow in their cloud.” Third, there is no room for racist remarks or attitudes in our world.

That’s when she told the story about being a director and having an office in Hollywood, when the “suits” came by and one of them used a racist term unrelated to Blacks, but apparently connected to some other group of people. Angelou told them she would have none of it and ordered them to leave her office. When the “suits” reminded her it was their office (since they owned it), she promptly left.

Racism “gets down in the carpet, and into the furniture where you’re sitting and then it’s all over your clothes and before you know it, it’s in you,” Angelou said.

Personally, I like her zero-tolerance for racist attitudes and comments, and think it’s something we can all imitate.

There is so much more to say about the woman who is a celebrated poet, author, professor, playwright, producer, director and civil rights activist–among other things. In addition to speaking several languages, she has more than 30 honorary degrees, a Pulitzer nomination, three Grammy awards and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not to mention the fact that she’s been invited to write poetry for former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration speech, and the United Nations.

I think I’ll wrap this up by saying that of all the things I liked about her performance, the one thing she said that I won’t forget is that people who don’t smile can’t be trusted.

Friday night Angelou smiled most of the time. So we can trust her.

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Editor’s Note: Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and the coauthor of Pretty Little Killers, to be released by BenBella Books in July 2014. You can also find the book that led to it, The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese,  on iTunes, B&N, and Amazon. Amazon readers have given it 4.4 stars.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of silence, watch Berry’s TEDx talk. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change who speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, check out the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”