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Hate speech never takes a holiday.

So the week before Christmas was as good a time as any for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Council to bring a panel to West Manchester Township to discuss the problems York County has with hate speech.

The township was chosen because last August, flyers touting the Ku Klux Klan were left on cars outside Regal Cinemas at the West Manchester Town Center during showings of Spike Lee's "BlackKklansman."

And that wasn't an isolated incident in York County. More KKK flyers were left in a neighborhood in Dover Township later that month, and people attending a debate between Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, and challenger Jess King at Eastern York High School just before the November election discovered racist flyers had been left on their cars.

More: Grappling with growing hate speech across York, state and country

More: Racist flyers distributed at Smucker-King debate

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No charges were filed in any of the incidents because, although vile, the sentiments expressed in the flyers were covered under the First Amendment's protection of free speech, District Attorney Dave Sunday said. 

Members of the panel, including local police chiefs and those who have studied hate speech, struggle with the encroachment of written and spoken hate into more communities and more lives.

"I think sometimes as police chiefs we think, 'Oh, that's not us,' or, 'We don't have that issue,'" West Manchester Township Police Chief John Snyder said. "But we do have that issue."

When Snyder first heard of the flyers found at the movie theater, he was shocked, and he spoke out against the "garbage," he said. In return, he received personal threats.

But those threats weren't the calls that resonated with him, he said. The call from a black resident who told him he wouldn't visit the movie theater anymore because he was scared for his own safety and the safety of his family did. 

"As a police chief, I thought to myself, I failed," Snyder said. "I failed this person. I failed to protect them, and I was angry."

The anonymity afforded by the internet and social media is emboldening racists to spread their messages of hate more frequently and more loudly, others said.

"People are getting more confident in articulating hate," said Hank Butler, a member of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition and a member of the PHRC panel. 

Butler noted that Robert Bowers, the suspect charged with killing 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, had rants "so antisemitic" that Facebook and Twitter kicked him off their platforms. 

Yet nobody was notified, Butler said. 

John Eyster, a member of the York County Advisory Council to the state Human Relations Commission, said that people — especially those in positions of privilege — need to call out racist language whenever and wherever they hear it. 

It's easy for those in a position of power to say, "Let's evolve," Eyster said. But evolution takes time, and society can't wait for that slow change to happen gradually.

"I would contend we need complete change, and we need it quickly," he said.  

We echo Eyster's call for people in power, people of privilege, to speak out when family, friends and co-workers make comments that start down the wrong path. The uncomfortable conversations are the ones that make an impact, and the county and the country need that impact, and they need it now.

 

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