Break the hate / Chai road

Madison Reynolds, Savannah Viragh and Kayla Brown, middle school students from St. Mary Margaret Alacoque check out the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center’s new, interactive exhibit on its opening day. Photo: Yana Hotter

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN

Break the hate

In Houston last week, a dead pig was left outside the entrance of a mosque as worshippers came to pray. It’s now being investigated, possibly as a hate crime.

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Also last week, two men pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges for harassing African-Americans in Jackson, Miss. Their guilty pleas come nine months after three others pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges, culminating in the June 26, 2011, hit-and-run death of James Craig Anderson, a black man. Federal prosecutors say the five were part of a group of young white men and women who came to Jackson to make a sport of attacking African-Americans.

And in Westbury, N.Y., where I grew up, Nassau County police are now investigating damage to a 4-by-4 wooden menorah displayed in a public area. Detectives classified the incident, which also took place last week, as a hate crime and are investigating the damage as a bias incident.

Everyday, I receive “Google Alerts” via email telling of possible hate crimes throughout the world. As someone who has written extensively on this subject, I like to keep up to date; these daily emails are an easy way for me to do so. Mostly, though, they remind me that bias and prejudice still fuel violence and crime in very significant ways, and that we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that hate happens elsewhere, not in our backyards.

Last Thursday, I attended a briefing at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL’s Midwest investigative researcher spoke about the ADL efforts to help law enforcement gather information about possible hate crime perpetrators in this region. He also explained the meaning and symbolism behind various tattoos sported by white supremacists and other extremists.

He showed photographs of several, tatted from head to toe. Some were expressionless while others just looked mean. Vitriolic, malicious, cruel, aren’t strong enough adjectives to describe their dogma and philosophies.

About halfway through the briefing, a group of Catholic middle-schoolers assembled in the same building, outside the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. They had come not only to tour the museum, but also to see its new permanent exhibit, “Change Begins with Me,” which officially opened that morning.

The interactive exhibit features a 65-inch, wall-mounted touch screen that allows visitors to explore real-life, contemporary examples of bias, discrimination and genocide. A world map reveals places where notorious hate violence has occurred, which links to personal stories, videos, photographs, factoids and other learning opportunities.

Among the hate crimes highlighted are those of Mathew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming who was tortured and beaten to death; James Byrd Jr., an African-American man, who was dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. Closer to home, visitors learn of an elderly Vietnamese man beaten to death on a south St. Louis street by teens playing the “Knockout Game.”

About 20 middle-schoolers from St. Mary Margaret Alacoque in south St. Louis County sat cross-legged in front of the screen as Olive Mukabalisa, a student at Webster University, told of surviving the genocide in Rwanda. For those unfamiliar with the term “genocide” or wanting to find out more, another touch of the screen explained its genesis and how it was one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials, which prosecuted Nazi war criminals.

Jean Cavender, director of the museum, hopes the exhibit encourages visitors to stand up against social injustice, prejudice and bullying.  Perhaps, she adds, had more people spoken up, maybe the atrocities of the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened.

“The Holocaust is over but hate is still happening now and we have to discuss it,” said Cavender.

The eighth-graders from St. Mary Margaret, though quiet, seemed impressed with the exhibit’s accessibility and ability to teach. “All the information is in one place. I haven’t seen anything like this before,” said Kayla Brown, 13. “It’s a lot easier than having to read out of a book. I like that’s it’s interactive,” added Jenny Brumfield, 14.

Cavender also explained that the exhibit isn’t static, but rather can be updated and evolve as new incidents of hate and bias unfold. If only that wasn’t the case, I thought, and then I remembered the ADL briefing and daily hate-crime “Google Alerts.”

Chai road

For her 18th birthday, Brooke Hyman wanted to do something that truly celebrated the number’s Hebrew meaning of “chai” or life. So on Friday night, she’s coordinating a fashion show/silent auction event to raise money for Friends of Kids with Cancer in honor of 6 ½-year-old Arianna Dougan, a family friend. Three and a half years ago, Arianna was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer called Neuroblastoma, a malignant tumor that develops from nerve tissue. It usually occurs in infants and children.

Brooke, who is a senior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and captain of the dance team, hopes to go study fashion at college next year. Knowing Arianna and what she has been battling, Brooke wanted to help. So she figured why not combine her love of fashion with her love of the little girl.

Not being one to take “no” for an answer, Brooke started calling around to see what she could get donated for the event. Invitations, check. A venue, check. Food and drink, check. Professional models, check. Clothes form area boutiques, check.

OK, maybe it wasn’t quite that easy.

“A lot said ‘no’ to me, but I called tons of people,” said Brooke. “With college applications due and my exams coming up and homework and being captain of my dance team, organizing this has been super stressful. It taught me a lot about time management and if I am really determined to get something done I can. I also had help from good friends.”

So far, Brooke has raised more than $5,000 for the St. Louis charity, which offers fun diversions such as toys for children battling cancer. She expects the number to increase with more tickets sales and proceeds from the silent auction.

Arianna’s mother, Lori Zucker, says she is “just amazed” by Brooke and what she has been able to do. “This is such an ambitious undertaking yet Brooke has been so determined,” said Zucker. “I can’t believe with all she has going on she has had time to pull off an event like this. And I am in awe of how she’s gotten people to donate wine, food, programs, even the DJ.”

As for Arianna, well, she’s pretty excited at the prospect of modeling at the show. She and four other children with cancer will walk the runway, along with eight or so professional models.

If you’re interested in attending the fundraiser at 7:30 Friday, Dec. 14 at Ambruster Great Hall, 6633 Clayton Road, Brooke says to call her at 314-704-2237 or email [email protected]