More than 100 people crammed into the Springfield Township municipal hall on Monday night to express outrage and shock at racist fliers that have been tossed onto dozens of lawns in eastern Montgomery County towns over the last few months.
Over the course of two hours, six panelists and several residents hosted by Eddie Graham, Ward 7 commissioner, spoke about how to battle hate. Residents encouraged others to immediately report future instances of hate mail to police, to not shy away from discussing race, and to defend others from racism.
“Stand up. Stand up when you see something happening, even if it makes you uncomfortable,” said one speaker, Andrea Lawful Sanders.
Elkins Park resident Jennie Lawston, in an interview before Monday night’s meeting, detailed her experience on Jan. 3, when she noticed a plastic bag in her driveway.
Thinking it was dog waste, she waited to pick it up until the next day, when she wore gloves. What she discovered inside the bag was a racist and anti-Semitic flier — the same thing was in her neighbor’s driveway — quoting, sort of, scripture: From Deuteronomy, “A bastard (mongrel) make not enter the assembly of God. ...”
The fliers, which said they were distributed by a group called the Loyal White Knights, condemned interracial dating and marriages: “Only white trash mixes with. ..." It blamed “open borders” on Jews. And it offered a phone number and website for white people to join the organization.
When Lawston called Abington police, she said the officers told her that a number of the bags had been distributed in driveways.
“At first, I was surprised and shocked. Then I was a little angry,” said Lawston, a retired manager for SmithKline, who is African American.
That incident, as well as at least two others since 2018, prompted Graham to organize Monday night’s event, “Diversity: The Art of Thinking Independently …. and Together: A Town Hall Meeting on Diversity and Inclusion.”
Graham said he wanted to hold a gathering sooner, but said he received flack from other elected officials that he shouldn’t stir up more problems. But the last straw for Graham, who is black, was the distribution of fliers in Springfield and Whitemarsh Townships last Nov. 28.
“We needed to have a voice," Graham said. "We needed to bring these sorts of actions to the light. We can’t continually let them be swept under the rug.”
He said the blame lies with President Donald Trump: “I think people are emboldened to act on biases they have already harbored.”
Lawston and her family have lived in Elkins Park since 1972 and never experienced any racist treatment. But she said her neighbors, an African American family who recently moved into the area, thought they had been targeted.
“They took it personally. But the police had to reassure them that [they] were not a target, and the fliers had been distributed” over a wide area.
Kathy Moser said she and her husband received fliers at their home in November, as did all of the houses in their-two block stretch on Arlingham Road, the dividing line between Whitemarsh and Springfield.
Two families on the Springfield Township side are interracial couples, Moser said. One of the families includes a black father who is an ex-Marine and had his Marine flag out front.
Montgomery County Commissioner Valerie Arkoosh, a Springfield Township resident, told the Chestnut Hill Local that there have been incidents like this going back to 2016.
Karen Taratuski, president of the Springfield school board, lives across the street from the Moser family, and have lived in the township for more than 20 years. She said she has reported the incidents to the Anti-Defamation League, which didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday, which was Presidents Day.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” Taratulski said.
She said the school district has been working with teachers and staff to develop cultural competency to make them more aware of people from other cultures and people with different backgrounds, ”whatever their race, family of origin, gender or disability."
“It’s very disturbing when something like this lands on your doorstep,” she said.
Residents Monday night wondered what prompted a hate group to feel like it could freely distribute racist literature in Springfield.
Such groups believe like they can act when the political climate is in their favor, or when they peg a town as being a “safe environment,” said Angela Bell, executive director of the Montgomery County Racial Justice Improvement Project.
Even so, the “fliers, the words, the damage to lawns comes in the middle of the night, in the dark, when people don’t show their faces,” said Rabbi Saul Grife of Beth Tikvah-B’Nai Jeshurun Synagogue in Flourtown. “But we come together, we stand here, and we say no. We’re ready to be counted. You can count on me to stand for good things.”
The meeting also addressed other displays of bigotry around the county.
Teachers said the N word was said frequently in school. Parents said the same term was used to describe their black children.
Dean Beer, chief public defender for the Montgomery County Public Defenders Office, said racist pictures could be shared with impunity on Facebook.
Residents said they were heartened by the mass of people who came out on a cold night — and a federal holiday — to condemn hate.