Freedom to Read Rally For Education and Equality Draws Enthusiastic Community Support
Dozens of people braved the wind and rain Saturday afternoon as they lined up along the Village Green in Clinton holding signs with slogans like “Books and People Deserve Love,” “Support Public Schools,” and “Gay is Okay” written in rainbow-colored magic marker. The students, teachers, librarians, and families who support human and educational rights were participating in the “Freedom to Learn and Love Rally,” which sprung up to counter the hate group Moms For Liberty, which was meeting in the Alexander Hamilton Institute located on the other end of the green.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations, has categorized Moms for Liberty as an “antigovernment extremist group” because they “use their multiple s
ocial media platforms to target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education, advance a conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community.”
Isabelle Haines wore a rainbow sash and held a sign that said, “Rainy Days are for Reading” with her daughter Mira.
“We’re here today because we support all kinds of families, and we believe that kids should be able to read books with all kinds of families and people that look like them.”
“I’m just out here to support public schools,” said Rachael Clark. “I want safe classrooms for all our kids.”
Charles and Jes Collett brought their children Caden and Lucas to the Village Green. They held a sign stating their family’s belief in science and equal rights for all minorities.
“We’re just here to show our support for books,” Charles Collett said, “and to show our opposition to banning them.”
“The idea that Moms for Liberty and the Alexander Hamilton Institute are non-partisan, non-ideological, and have ‘in-good faith concern’ about the quality of education is a ruse,” explained Eric Santomauro-Stenzel, a student at Hamilton College who has researched both groups. “They are lying to present themselves as credible organizations when they are not; they actually have a fiercely ideological agenda.”
The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization is a conservative “think tank” separate from its namesake, Hamilton College. According to Santomauro-Stenzel, their association with Moms for Liberty aligns with their right-wing perspective.
“It’s frustrating that they walk around with this air of ‘we’ve done the research,’” he said. “In reality, if you take any real rigorous course on history and these issues, you learn they’re the ones making stuff, they’re the ones wanting to indoctrinate children in our schools, they’re the ones who want to teach a one-sided view of history and present it as both sides.”
Santomauro-Stenzel listed off several issues and perspectives that he says groups like Moms for Liberty and the Alexander Hamilton Institute seek to have censored.
“They don’t want people to teach about basic facts of life; they don’t want to teach about the many different ways people engage with sexuality and their own identity,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about the history of slavery and racism, and they’re really hell-bent on covering up the truth even though they keep talking about how much they value history.”
Santomauro-Stenzel says that as a student, he needs information from various viewpoints to learn and to draw his own conclusions. While horns blared from cars and trucks showing their support for the ralliers, he shed light on both groups’ tactics and perils.
“I think it’s important to be reflective as a society and as students,” he said. “and the only way we can do that is if we take a critical eye to the things that previous generations have or have not done and that means talking honestly about slavery, and talking honestly about segregation, and talking honestly about how those legacies still exist. It means talking honestly about how queer people have been marginalized in society.”
Rallygoer Lu Blanchard took a long view of history. Her sign said, “Burn Bras, Not Books!” She expl
ained that she has been protesting for civil rights since the 1960s. The danger presented by Moms For Liberty is more immediately felt because she hails from the Upstate New York town of Lake Luzerne, where the Rockwell Falls Public Library had to close its doors last week due to the staff being harassed, intimidated, and threatened by a small group of residents who objected to an event where a drag queen read a story to patrons.
“There were threats on their lives, and they couldn’t take it anymore,” Blanchard got emotional as she talked about the library Moms for Liberty had effectively shut down. “We have to stand up against this. It’s not right. We should have the right to read what we want to read. To force one small group of people’s ideology on others, I do not feel is right; that is not democracy.”
Clinton resident Gary Leising was in attendance with his wife Melinda and son Jude, who is a high school student.
“I’m here to support the freedom to read,” Leising said, “to support having libraries in schools that provide access to books for all students and provide them with choices of books to read-not just [a selection] made by small groups of parents.”
Leising says it is not only crucial for student readers to see themselves in books but also to see others who are unlike themselves.
“If you exclude books about LGBTQ+ characters, if you exclude books about Black characters, then students who are in the majority are not going to be empathetic toward the experiences of people who are different. That’s why having a wide range of literature is important; to see that everyone’s individual story is worth reading and worth empathizing with.”
Leising mentioned the damage done by the group’s attempt to undermine the credibility of professional educators.
“It’s important that the community and the parents model for their children and the kids in school that we do trust teachers. Teachers and school librarians go through rigorous education and training to learn about the curriculum and how to select books and materials that are appropriate for students. They know how to choose books that will challenge them and teach them, and as parents, we should trust that they know how to do that, especially [since] schools have common-sense policies in place.”
“It’s weird,” he observed, “that parts of society don’t trust teachers when nobody says, ‘I have a toothache, but I’m not going to trust the dentist to fix it.’ I send my kids to school and trust that the teachers do their job.
Full disclosure: I have a personal connection to this story because I am a gay teacher who was personally targeted and libeled by the leader of the Oneida County chapter of Moms for Liberty. Fighting back, even when one is right, runs the risk of encouraging stalkers and escalated retaliation. Locally, the group has become infamous for slandering educators by calling them “groomers.” I was apprehensive about attending the rally and writing about it, but ultimately, I decided that the only way to fight hate is by confronting it, standing up to it, and telling the truth. I felt this way in 2018 when I organized a candlelight vigil to stop the KKK from recruiting in Westmoreland, the town where I live, and I feel that way now. I also believe that, as a victim of this organization, I have an acute understanding of the harm they do and the danger they present. I ended the rally inspired by the observations of a senior at Whitesboro High School named Gavin Burgdoff.
While Burgdoff is concerned about the influence the extremist group is trying to exert over education, he is encouraged by the fact that their numbers are small despite their current outsize influence over organizations that find themselves in their crosshairs.
“There is more support for us than for them,” Burgdoff said. “However, they are loud. Those negative voices; there are very few of them, but they just speak out a lot, and they are very loud. So, the best thing we can do is to speak out against them.”
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