BUCKHANNON — The organizer of Friday's Hate Has No Home Rally says she won’t let the exact force the rally is intended to combat overshadow the event’s efforts to spread the messages of tolerance, inclusivity, fairness, social justice and equality.
Edwina Howard-Jack, founder of Upshur Indivisible, said Thursday that she, West Virginia Wesleyan College officials and the Buckhannon Police Department have been contacted about the possibility of a white nationalist hate group showing up to the Hate Has No Home Here rally and march, which begins at 5 p.m. at Wesley Chapel.
“The FBI contacted us that the Aryan Pagan Bikers group is chattering that they could be coming to protest and agitate,” Howard-Jack said in a telephone interview. “They are considered a hate group by the FBI.”
The Pagans made the news in West Virginia several years ago when 55 members were arrested in Appalachia for crimes ranging from drug offenses to attempted murder.
Howard-Jack said she was also contacted by John Waltz, Wesleyan’s vice president for enrollment, who told her that the college’s jazz band and choir would no longer be performing at the event — as they were originally slated to do — because college officials were concerned for the safety of their students, “particularly multicultural students.”
“We do understand Wesleyan being concerned about the safety of their students,” Howard-Jack said.
In a statement, the college said the musical ensemble directors — jazz band director James Moore and choir director Daniel Hughes — made the decision to pull out of the rally “based on a limited number of available students and safety concerns that were raised by law enforcement authorities.”
“While WVWC fully supports diversity and acceptance, it rents space to a variety of non-college groups and is neutral in its stance regarding scheduled outside events,” the statement reads. “Like other non-college sponsored events, our music students were given the opportunity to volunteer or decline participation. However, WVWC supports the decision to cancel the ensembles’ appearances due to matters of safety related to our students.”
Vice president of advancement Bob Skinner said Wesleyan plans to notify its full student body about the possibility of the hate group protesting at the rally and would not allow such individuals onto Wesleyan property.
“Any group with a history of violence would be prevented from appearing on our campus,” Skinner said.
Despite the possibility of protesters, organizers and local law enforcement officials are working together to ensure a safe, successful event.
“We don’t want to allow the [possible] presence of white supremacist Nazis to totally overshadow the good we’re trying to do with this event,” Howard-Jack said. To that end, rally organizers met with Buckhannon police chief Matt Gregory to enact a comprehensive safety plan.
“We’re working together to take all safety precautions,” Howard-Jack said. “We plan on having a large police force present.”
Local law enforcement was always scheduled to play a role at the rally. Among the more than a dozen scheduled speakers is Lt. Doug Loudin, who will talk about non-discrimination from a Buckhannon officer’s perspective. Police cars will also help transport people needing assistance to and from the Buckhannon City Park for the march portion of the event.
Other speakers include mayor David McCauley, councilman David Thomas, Buckhannon native Katie McNemar Alicea, local business owner Michael Oldaker and Mary Ann Claytor.
“It’s a wide variety of speakers,” Howard-Jack said. “It’s a brave agenda to ask people to open their hearts and minds and be willing to discuss those issues, and we’re going to continue to follow through with it as long as we feel that everyone can remain safe. At this point, we do.”
On Thursday, Gregory said eight of his officers will be present at the rally, working in conjunction with others from the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department and the Buckhannon detachment of the W.Va. State Police — for a total of more than 20 law enforcement officers.
“We’re working in conjunction with the sheriff’s department and the state police to make sure everything is secure and safe,” Gregory said. Both Gregory and Howard-Jack predicted a couple hundred people would attend tonight’s rally.
According to the group’s Facebook page, Upshur Indivisible is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization “focused on social and economic justice.” Its mission, according to the group’s Facebook page is “equality, inclusion and fairness for all.”
“Our goals as an organization are to increase tolerance and inclusion and fairness and equality and to increase civil and community engagement and activism,” Howard-Jack said. “Hate Has No Home Here is a positive message around all those things. We thought it was a message everyone in the community — regardless of any kind of political affiliation — could get behind.”
“Non-discrimination and no hate should not be a partisan issue,” Howard-Jack added. “We want to highlight the good things happening in Buckhannon and Upshur County; we might disagree on some issues, but we are trying to show that we are united against hate.”
Howard-Jack and her colleagues are monitoring the situation and will make adjustments to their safety plan in cooperation with the Buckhannon Police Department, as necessary, she said.
“We’re sending out safety tips on how to prepare for counter-protesters, such as when you’re marching, walk with a partner and carry your phone,” Howard-Jack said. “Safety is obviously important to us, as well as standing up for inclusion and diversity and for people of color and people of all religious backgrounds and all sexual orientations. We’re trying to stand up to hate as best as we can.”
Howard-Jack also said organizers were also notified that the Pagan Motorcycle Club could show up at the West Virginia Grassroots Summit, held Friday and Saturday at the Event Center at Brushy Fork.
The Hate Has No Home rally begins Friday, Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. at Wesley Chapel. Following the various speakers, rallygoers will march to the Buckhannon City Park for live music, children’s activities and food vendors.
The event is expected to conclude at around 8 p.m.