Waynesboro City Council, meeting for the first since a flyer purporting a connection to the KKK was thrown into the yards of Waynesboro homes and businesses, were taken to task by angry residents and activists who blasted members for not responding more forcefully to what they say amounted to a hate crime.
Councilman Samuel Hostetter, speaking before the public comment section of Monday night’s meeting, addressed the flyers, which appeared around the city at several locations the weekend of July 13-14.
“In our current context and history we can’t ignore it,” said Hostetter, who admitted to struggling with how to respond, saying he did not want to give the hate group or people responsible for the flyers the publicity they crave.
“I had trouble walking that line,” he said.
The flyers’ appearance coincided with raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents President Donald Trump said would occur starting July 14 in several cities across the U.S. The leaflets, stating “ICE IS NICE,” also gave the writer’s support to “law enforcement everywhere.”
The flyers, attached to baggies filled with birdseed, also included wording alluding to the hate group, calling on people to contact the “Loyal White Knights.”
City Manager Michael Hamp and Jordan Bowman, the city’s counsel, gave a detailed timeline of the Waynesboro Police Department’s response and what legal steps the city can take against the flyers before opening the floor to public discussion.
Hamp said the first incident was reported to police at about 11 p.m. on July 13. He said three bags were thrown into a lot on East Main Street from a pickup truck. Police received a second report the following day in the Park Road area.
On July 16, police reviewed a video taken of one of the incidents and located a truck similar to one described earlier, but officers cleared that person of being involved, Hamp said. With no further reports or leads, the case was closed the following week, he said.
During the last five years, Waynesboro police have received a half-dozen similar reports, Hamp said.
Hamp and Bowman, in addressing the larger issue of what the city could do to someone distributing the flyers, said messages, even racist or hateful ones, are protected by the First Amendment. There are city ordinances requiring pamphlets must be affixed and cannot be thrown, which means in this instance, the only offense would be a littering charge, they said.
The city, they said, cannot prohibit the expression of an idea just because society finds it objectionable.
“Again, the behavior, no matter how offensive or repulsive, doesn’t violate the law,” Hamp said.
That response did not sit well with the several dozen residents who turned out to address council, led by Chanda McGuffin and Sharon Fitz, co-founders of RISE — Resist, Improve, Sustain, Empowered. McGuffin and Fitz organized a rally outside the Charles T. Yancey Municipal Building on July 22 as a “day of action” in response to the flyers and to a decision by City Council to cancel that night’s scheduled meeting.
Council members said at the time their decision had been made July 17 due to a lack of scheduled agenda items, rather than anything to do with the flyers. But McGuffin, Fitz and other members of the group attending Monday’s meeting clearly were not satisfied with that answer.
“You really do not care. … Dr. Hostetter was the only one who came to the rally, he was the only one to reach out to me,” said McGuffin, a one-time council candidate and a frequent critic of the city’s efforts to revitalize the Port Republic neighborhood.
“I’m not going to shut up. … I’m not having any more private meetings. Those private meetings have Port Republic looking like the inner city. … People over there won’t even come down here because they’ve heard the same things for four years,” she said.
Fitz also took issue with the city’s claim the flyers’ content is protected by the Constitution, making an analogy that someone issuing a threat can be prosecuted.
“There are certain things that are not protected,” she said, “freedom of speech has its imitations.”
Others pointedly called out council for not “standing up” for Waynesboro’s African-American residents. The flyer, they said, is a recruitment tool for the KKK and the city must make it known that hate groups have no place in the community.
“It is of paramount importance that local government ... [show] hate is not welcome here and back that up and invest the resources that most of these communities desperately need,” said King Khalfani, of Suffolk, the former executive director of the Virginia NAACP.