The Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition burned Confederate flags in Niagara Square on Sunday, denouncing racism and calling for an end to the flag they said symbolizes a culture of hatred, violence and oppression.
The rally was held just hours after Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina held its first service since a white supremacist killed nine black worshipers there. The massacre reignited a national debate about use of the Confederate flag, particularly one flying on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol Statehouse.
In the South, defenders of the flag have called it a tribute to their history.
“How would we react to a German saying a swastika is part of their heritage?” asked Travis McNamara of Buffalo. “It’s a shameful part of history. It shouldn’t be glorified and honored.”
The Buffalo social justice group urged that “symbols of racism not be tolerated on government property.”
“That flag is a tangible symbol of everything everybody here is against,” said Brenda Cawthon of the coalition. “It has been used to cover up lynchings, to cover up the burning of human beings in public squares, and every kind of horror and misdeed human beings are capable of visiting on each other.”
Lou DeJesus pointed to the flags of apartheid-era South Africa worn by church shooter Dylann Roof – flags that have been co-opted along with the Confederate flag as symbols in favor of white supremacy. Roof’s car license plate bore an image of the Confederate flag.
But racism, she said, stretches well beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.
“This is not a Southern problem; it’s an American problem and an international problem,” she said.
Though not as flaunted and accepted as it is in the South, racism is alive and well in Buffalo – one of the most segregated cities in the country, Cawthon said.
“Up here it’s sneakier, it’s nastier,” Cawthon said. “You don’t find people hanging from trees. You find people who can’t get hired on construction sites, people whose children are poorly educated, people who are being forced out of their homes because they’re standing in the way of impending gentrification.”
Those at the protest talked of Buffalo School Board Member Carl Paladino and referred to him as a sort of a poster child of the “hidden, institutional racism” in Western New York.
“It’s still happening today,” said Shontae Buckley of Buffalo. “You have someone like Carl Paladino on the School Board, and people voted him in, so you know it’s prevalent.”
In 2010, Paladino garnered national attention during his run for governor when it came out that he had circulated what some considered sexist and racist emails.
Paladino also forwarded a video that has been shared on white supremacy websites, depicting dancing chimpanzees and titled, “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal.”
Members of PUSH Buffalo and the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization were in attendance and said their groups would call for Paladino to be unseated this week. The group said Paladino is “a poison to our children.”
“Carl Paladino has been spouting racist rhetoric, especially against black mothers, for quite a long time,” said Eve Shippens, of the parent-teacher group. “He should not be able to oversee a district that is 51 percent African-American. He represents a faction of people that we need to fight against.”
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and past GOP nominee Mitt Romney have called for the removal of the Confederate flag from outside South Carolina’s Statehouse.
“In Florida, we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged,” Bush wrote on Twitter. “This is obviously a very sensitive time in South Carolina and our prayers are with the families, the AME church community and the entire state. Following a period of mourning, there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward and I’m confident they will do the right thing.”
Romney also tweeted that the flag should be taken down.
“To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred,” he wrote on Twitter.
But Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee disagreed.
“I don’t think you could say that the presence of one lunatic racist, who everybody in this country feels contempt for, and no one is defending, is somehow evidence of the people of South Carolina,” Huckabee said on “Meet the Press.”
Protestor Ellie Dorritie said Roof is a symptom of a much larger problem, not a “lone wolf.”
“To say racism is a mental illness is a deliberate, intentional attempt to deflect attention,” she said.
But she’s confident there are enough racially aware white people to stem the tide of racism in Buffalo and beyond.
“We can do it and we will do it,” she said. “We just have to find each other and work together. I know it’s coming.”