2017-08-24 / Editorial

Break down the barriers of hate

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

It is in these times that I am reminded of an important quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

We’ve all followed the news coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia, with disbelief.

The Charlottesville protests left one anti-racist activist dead after a reported white supremacist plowed into a crowd of protesters with his car. That man is now being held in jail and is facing murder charges, and a potential hate crime investigation by the FBI. Two Virginia state troopers also perished when a helicopter responding to the unrest crashed.

But more than the tragic deaths, the resurgence of hate groups like the Neo-Nazis, the white-supremacist Alt-Right and the KKK is a very hard pill to swallow.

I read enough history to know society isn’t perfect. We too often judge others, simply for being different. But I was raised to treat the person next me as my equal. I was taught growing up that we could be anyone we wanted to be regardless of where we came from, how much money we have, what we look like, the color of our skin or who we love.

As a gay man in the public eye, my own road to acceptance, both accepting myself and being accepted by others, has been an ongoing journey of self-discovery, in which I asked for tolerance from others and sought to forgive those who would demonize and attack me for being true to myself.

Despite my own struggle, I can’t imagine what it’s like for those whose skin color or ethnicity makes them an immediate target for people with hate in their hearts. While many of us reacted to the events in Charlottesville with revulsion, many of us will never truly know the experience of being on the receiving end of the hate and violence perpetrated against people of color in Virginia.

In Maine, we don’t have much diversity. It’s easy to think race issues simply don’t exist. I remember in high school we only had a handful of students of different ethnicities. Even then, it seemed like they were well-liked and respected. Every time I attend an event at Thornton Academy, students have embraced their international counterparts with open arms. With their actions, these students are rejecting the division and bigotry of the past and building a more accepting future. They give me hope.

But it’s not always so easy to feel optimistic. The violence and demonstrations of hate we’ve seen not just in Charlottesville, but across the country, is a like a dark mirror giving us a glimpse of the worst versions of ourselves and our country.

Violence is never the answer, no matter what side of the aisle or issue you are representing. We live in the United States of America, a country that was founded on the idea of freedom and liberty for all. We pride ourselves on the notion that each person was created equal and should be treated as such. Yes, we sometimes struggle to live up to our ideals, but with each generation we improve.

We must all be mindful of the words we use and the toxic rhetoric that spews from politicians, because words matter. Leadership is about lifting people up and returning to our highest principles when we go astray. This starts at the top. We must hold accountable so-called leaders who enable these hate groups and pour gasoline on already smoldering fires of hate.

We have an obligation to hold those who turn to hate and violence accountable for their words and actions, but we cannot succumb to an “us versus them” mentality. That’s no easy tightrope to walk. We have to recognize at all times that bigotry and oppression in America are a sickness that will only be cured when we all recognize our responsibility to end it. All of us have a responsibility to do the hard work to erase the disease of racism that has bubbled under the surface for far too long, even when that means hard conversations with our loved ones and neighbors.

Let’s join together, not as Democrats or Republicans, not as black or white, not as gay or straight, not as Jews or Christians, but as Americans, as human beings, and let our light shine bright. Now more than ever, we need to spread positivity through service, through our words and through our actions. Now is the time to rise above and let history be a warning and a compass to the direction we want our future to take.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is the owner of Chenette Media LLC, a marketing & public relations firm, works as the marketing coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.

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