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This letter was submitted to both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post during 2003.. Neither paper published it.

Free Speech or Hate Speech? 

January 2000: The Georgia State legislature votes to shrink the size of the Confederate emblem that has dominated the state flag since 1956--when, two years after Brown v. Board of Education, the symbol was placed on the flag as an act of defiance against federal civil rights legislation. Georgians of all backgrounds applaud the decision. 

January 2000: Nearly 50,000 people march in Columbia, South Carolina, to demand that the Confederate battle flag flying over the state capitol be removed from public life. Five to ten percent of the crowd is white, including large delegations of white elected officials, business leaders and clergy. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston tells the crowd, "The vast majority of South Carolina says it's time to bring the flag down...we cannot be insensitive...to the feelings of our African-American brothers and sisters when they see that flag." The flag is removed after a vote by the South Carolina legislature. 

While die-hards argue that the Confederate flag is a historical symbol of Southern culture that has nothing to do with race, people of good will of all backgrounds agree that is a symbol of racism that has no place in public life.

October 2000: A small group of Italian Americans in Denver, Colorado announces plans to resurrect a Columbus Day parade. The American Indian Movement of Colorado and allies enter into negotiations with the parade organizers, making it clear to them that, while they support and are willing to participate in a celebration of Italian-American pride, they cannot accept the "celebration" of Christopher Columbus, a man personally responsible for the genocide and enslavement of Native Americans, and a hated symbol for Native Americans and their allies of 500 years of racism, imperialism and genocide. The parade organizers agree to hold a parade without mention of Columbus. But then at almost literally the last minute they renege on their agreement. Though delayed by protests, the parade goes on--with the sanction and support of Denver elected officials, business leaders, media and clergy. Now those parade organizers have been given a permit for a Columbus Day parade this October. 

What's wrong with this picture? Why have the same Colorado officials and media representatives, who we know would join in condemning the symbolic display of the blatantly racist Confederate emblem, failed to recognize the "celebration" of Columbus for what it is: hate speech, offensive to all people who support the basic American values of civil rights, equality and cultural diversity. The argument is made that the right to "celebrate" Columbus is protected by the First Amendment. But the First Amendment does not require our elected officials, or our community, to give official sanction to hate speech, whether in the form of a Confederate flag that "celebrates" racism and slavery, or a Columbus Day parade that shows, to paraphrase Mayor Riley, gross insensitivity to our Indian brothers and sisters and their allies. 

The Transform Columbus Day alliance once again holds the olive branch out to the parade organizers, asking them to join us in transforming a symbol of racism into a celebration of cultural diversity. We hope that this year, unlike last, they will accept that olive branch, and we can join together, as the people of South Carolina and Georgia did, in beginning a new millennium of mutual respect. One could say facetiously that the response of the parade organizers last year to those overtures was "Fuggedaboutit!" But Italian Americans have legitimately challenged such media stereotypes of them as Mafia thugs, making us all aware of the pain and the real consequences of such stereotypes. We sincerely hope that this year the parade organizers will recognize the pain and consequences of their "celebration" of Columbus, for Indians and their allies, and instead join us in transforming this holiday. If they choose not to, the Transform Columbus Day alliance will exercise its First Amendment rights to present vigorous opposition to this unconscionable event.

Mark Cohen
End the Politics of Cruelty 

2004 Transform Columbus Day Alliance
10/12/2004