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York NAACP: Trump's debate comments embolden white supremacists

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York NAACP President Sandra Thompson speaks during Juneteenth Celebration at Campus Park next to Voni Grimes Gym in York City, Friday, June 19, 2020.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

The York NAACP on Wednesday decried comments made by President Donald Trump the night before, in which he appeared to throw support behind an alleged hate group and refused to condemn white supremacists.

During Tuesday's chaotic first presidential debate between the president and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, Trump told the Proud Boys, a group known for its violence and white nationalist beliefs, to "stand back and stand by." The group is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In response, York NAACP President Sandra Thompson said the remarks were "dog whistles" that serve as another example of why people need to get out and vote on Nov. 3. 

“I think (the remarks) continue to embolden and strengthen those who would be divisive and want to maintain the white supremacy thought pattern,” Thompson said, adding she was not surprised by the remarks, given Trump's divisive rhetoric while in office.

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On Tuesday, moderator Chris Wallace directly asked Trump to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, which have gained momentum during his presidency.

Trump said that he was "prepared" to do so, but quickly shifted his tone and blamed left-wing groups for recent violence during protests in response to multiple instances of Black people dying at the hands of police.

Manchester Township residents Paige Shiffler, 17 (left) and mother Cat Ster, 42 (right) attend a march and protest through Penn Park to downtown York City on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 to raise awareness for Breonna Taylor and other Black women who died at the hands of police.

"Proud Boys, stand back and stand by," Trump said. "But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left."

Despite widespread condemnation, the Proud Boys celebrated Trump's name-drop on social media. Members have said the comments were "historic," and that recruitment has already seen a spike since the remarks, The New York Times reported.

The group refers to themselves as "western chauvinists" and has been tied to multiple incidents of violence at recent protests. Members have often been armed and wearing protective gear.

“There was no effort to steer himself away from that community (during the debate),” said Chad Baker, chair of the Democratic Party of York County. “I think, if anything, he only engaged them even more. Quite frankly, that’s a disgusting tactic.”

Jeff Piccola, chair of the York County GOP, did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.

The Proud Boys have made national headlines on more than one occasion over the years.

One of those events was the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jason Kessler, a member of the Proud Boys, organized the event.

During the rally, James Alex Fields, who is said to be a neo-Nazi, deliberately drove his car into protesters. One woman was killed and dozens more people were injured. Fields was sentenced to life in prison on federal hate crime charges.

After that event, Trump said there were "very fine people on both sides," remarks that also prompted widespread criticism.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct date for the United the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.