Changing minds or spreading hate? Controversial event puts South Jersey town on edge

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Broadway Theatre in Pitman, N.J. (Google Maps)

Broadway Theatre in Pitman, N.J. (Google Maps)

An event in South Jersey billed as a discussion about “ending racism, violence, and authoritarianism” is now under fire for giving a platform to “agents of hate,” touching off a thorny debate over the best way to engage controversial viewpoints.

The full-day conference, scheduled for Aug. 31 at the Broadway Theater of Pitman, promised panel discussions with political pundits, YouTube personalities, and comedians on topics such as political violence and immigration.

But as highlighted by local progressive groups in recent days, several of those panelists have a history of racist, misogynistic, and otherwise offensive statements.

British YouTuber Carl Benjamin, for example, defended his use of the N-word and a tweet that he “wouldn’t even rape” a female politician during an unsuccessful run for European Parliament this year. Another invited guest, Mark Meechan, was convicted of a hate crime in Britain last year for teaching a pet dog to give a Nazi salute, a stunt he said was satire. Yet another, Canadian feminist writer Meaghan Murphy, was banned from Twitter last year for refusing to refer to transgender women as women.

After activists launched a call and email campaign — and the theater’s Twitter account was hacked last week — the theater said it will no longer host the event.

Organizers say the conference will move forward in the Pitman-Philadelphia area, but the venue is uncertain. They also say an after-party at Human Village Brewing Co. in Pitman is still on. The brewery did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The brouhaha has revealed a fundamental disagreement between local activists and event organizers over how to engage people of divergent viewpoints, a challenge that seems to have become even more daunting in the hyperpartisan Trump era.

It has also caused worry among some Pitman residents that their quiet Gloucester County town could become the scene of protests larger and more unruly than those that accompanied an appearance last year by conservative writer and commentator Ann Coulter. That event ended without incident.

“This seemed like it was going to be magnified even more than that,” Mayor Russ Johnson said Tuesday. “I don’t want that on my streets.”

Progressive activists say that many of the invited speakers hold views on race, ethnicity, gender, and history that are dangerous to the community, and that they should not be given an opportunity to spread their beliefs.

“People that spread these kinds of ideologies, that radicalize people online into these ideologies, we feel, giving them a platform is a threat to our collective community well-being,” said Adam Sheridan, an activist with the Camden County-based progressive group Cooper River Indivisible.

“We feel like these are not the people we need to be having debates with, that there are limits to free discourse in terms of what’s a useful use of our time as far as debating,” Sheridan said.

But Bill Ottman, who leads the upstart social media company Minds and helped organize the event, said no matter how controversial any guest may be, the answer is to talk to them, not silence them.

“If there is somebody at the event who may at some point in their lives had a radical view, that in itself is actually arguably the reason to have them involved in discourse, because that act is what gives them the opportunity to change their mind,” he said.

Ottman said organizers worked hard to put together a lineup of speakers that included people from all parts of the political spectrum — and he invited local activists to join the discussion.

“We know based on data and real-life, face-to-face communication that discourse is the best solution for solving these problems of racism and violence,” he said. “That is the theory that this is all based in.”

Organizers issued a statement this week assuring attendees that the event would take place on Aug. 31 “despite ongoing aggressive threats and alleged criminal actions taken against the Pitman Theater” — an apparent allusion to the hacking of the theater’s Twitter account. It is not known who was behind that.

Organizers have also taken exception to a Tweet suggesting they would help fight racism by taking the speakers and “locking them in a room and setting them on fire.”

Event leaders said they would email attendees about any changes in venue as the event gets closer. About 400 people have bought tickets since they went on sale about four months ago, Ottman said.

Sheridan said protesters would be there, too.

“We will chase them pretty much wherever they go,” he said.

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