By Greg Hill
Early last week, the editor of this paper shared on the Pioneer’s Facebook page an invitation from Pastor Jamie Fiorino to join her in a gathering to express solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an impressive demonstration of the efficacy of years of indoctrination via the right-wing propaganda machines of talk radio, cable news, and online conspiracy garbage, that one innocuous posting inspired a comment section filled with what I can only describe as a strange ballet of fear, anger, and misinformation.
I shall paraphrase:
Beware of outside agitators! The looters are coming! Those miscreants better not mess with my livestock! How dare the Yuma Pioneer publicly share this! Don’t you realize that this post can be viewed by ANYONE, even members of the dreaded boogeymen known as ANTIFA?!? Something or other about prayer or God! Our town is has no problems with race! Dear Lord, they’re coming for us! Hide!
There was no way I was gonna miss out on this adventure.
When I arrived in Yuma, right on time, the event was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, I was able to ask of one of the twenty-six law enforcement officers who had been deployed to quell the violence, “Can you point me toward a protest?”
“Sure,” he said, even though this meant interrupting his amiable conversation with one of Yuma’s many non-rioting citizens, “They changed the location. It’s at Freedom Park.”
Arriving at Freedom Park, I was met by a line of people standing quietly while wearing masks (there’s a virus going around).
One of these quiet people asked me, “Did you come in on the bus?”
“The one that was sent from Chicago. It’s supposed to be full of violent protestors.”
“Seriously?” I said.
“You didn’t hear?”
Paraphrasing again: “People actually thought folks from Denver and–apparently–Chicago had learned of our act of solidarity and had decided to–or were planning to–or were suspected of being sufficiently aware of the existence of our Very Important Town to take the time out of their busy schedules pillaging Denver and Chicago to do the same to Yuma, Colorado.”
“Seriously?” I repeated.
“Someone took it seriously. Shop-All closed early. Ambulances are being directed not to drive thru Yuma. See those gentlemen over there?”
I looked at the gentlemen over there.
“They’re veterans, here to protect the memorial, just in case.”
The veterans seemed unconcerned with the memorial. Rather, it appeared to me that they were engaged in pleasant discussions with the very people who–per the scuttlebutt at Facebook–posed a threat to the memorial.
Seeking further clarification, I spoke to a member of the law enforcement community.
“How’s it goin’?” I said.
“We’re just here making sure that the things that were never going to happen, don’t.”
“I heard about something about buses.”
He shook his head and laughed.
“Well,” I said, “Thanks for joining us today.”
“Sure thing. Thanks for coming.”
There followed an hour of standing and visiting with fellow protestors and waving at the passing cars whose drivers sometimes waved back, sometimes took photos and videos, and often pretended they didn’t see the line of their heavily unarmed, frighteningly peaceful neighbors, friends, and colleagues.
At the end of the hour, Pastor Jamie spoke eloquently of human rights and asked us to consider what it had felt like to stand for justice for an hour in full view of our neighbors, friends, and colleagues who might not understand our motivations or our intentions. It was a genuinely moving moment, as had been the event itself.
But what about the commenters at Facebook–the ballet troupe that had managed to amplify and exaggerate the fear that’s been pounded into them by one conspiracy after another until their version of reality has been warped into a sad circle of self-pity and pain? Had they really managed to shut down Yuma for an evening, over nothing?
I suspect not. I mean, yes, Yuma had been shut down over nothing; but, no, I wouldn’t put the blame at the feet of a few local Facebook commenters. Rather, it’s plausible that our righteous friends and neighbors were manipulated into their frenzy by something more malignant than small-town gossip.
Here’s a June 2nd headline from the Associated Press: FALSE CLAIMS OF ANTIFA PROTESTERS PLAUGE SMALL U.S. CITIES.Quoting from that same article, “Facebook, using information shared by Twitter, announced Tuesday night it…took down a handful of accounts on its platform that were created by white supremacy groups like Identity Evropa and American Guard, some of them posing as part of the antifa movement.”Fox news, June 2nd: TWITTER SHUTS DOWN FAKE ANTIFA ACCOUNT LINKED TO WHITE NATIONALISTS, MISINFORMATION TIED TO GEORGE FLOYD PROTESTS SPREADS.
Quoting: “The messages first spread by bots, before then being shared by real people and falsely claimed the government or police had “jammed” cell phones, preventing people in the streets past the D.C. curfew from making calls or posting online.”
A June 6th headline from NBC News: IN KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON, VICTORY DECLARED OVER ANTIFA, WHICH NEVER SHOWED UP
Quoting from that article, “On local social media, rumors were swirling that buses filled with outsiders were planning to infiltrate Klamath Falls to wreak similar havoc.”
Whoever is generating this garbage wants to increase paranoia, to divide us, to reap chaos, and hasten the meltdown of this country.
Let’s not do their bidding, okay?
Here’s a suggestion, which I offer with sincere respect: Next time there’s an event of this sort, don’t look to Facebook for comfort; Facebook only offers anxiety. Instead, come to the event. You will be welcome there. Visit, ask questions, debate, listen. Peer beyond the imaginary masks that others have superimposed on the faces of your neighbors and colleagues. I promise it’ll be worth your while.
Hill is a Yuma County native, graduate of Liberty School, and author of the “East of Denver” triology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.