LYNN — Reverend Andre Bennett, Youth Pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Lynn, shared an emotional story that was became a part of what drove him to become involved in community issues of hate and intolerance.
“My son is very soft spoken,” he said. “We were driving in the car when the news that the officers who shot Tamir Rice would not be indicted broke. My son said to me, ‘Daddy they should just tell us that being black is a crime.'”
Bennett said that it is hard for him to tell the story without cracking his voice and in that moment he didn’t know what to say to his son.
“I don’t think I meant the work that I was doing until that moment,” he said.
Bennett told his story at Thursday night’s North Shore Community College’s Forums on Tolerance with a 40th installment in the series titled Respect and Inclusion: Building hate-free communities.
Speakers from the community gathered at the Lynn campus to talk about topics including hate and discrimination they have seen or been victim of, the line between what is hate speech and what is free speech, and what the community can do to be hate-free.
Bennett was joined in the forum attended by students and family members by Susan Jhirad, a professor at NSCC and political activist, and Jose A. Palma, legal program director at Justice at Work, which provides legal resources to worker centers.
“I always feel home when I come here,” said Palma, who was originally born in El Salvador and is in the country under Temporary Protective Status.
The forums were created in 1996 to challenge students and members of the community to learn more about one another, bring about empathy and understanding toward other people, and to make a difference in people, neighborhoods, and the world according to NSCC.
The forum was preceded by keynote speaker, Attorney Joseph Berman, who spoke about the legal line drawn between hate speech and free speech.
Berman is a regional board member of the Anti-Defamation League.
“Most speech is obviously protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “There are of course exceptions to this, but hate speech is protected. As much as that confuses us and makes our stomach churn, we have to remember it.”
Berman also talked about how hate speech can often increase online through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. He said that many of these platforms have codes of conduct restricting hate speech and if a user sees something that breaks these codes, they should bring it to the company’s attention.
“I think the answer isn’t stifling speech but to promote more speech,” he said. “By countering hate speech with our speech we can combat it.”
Jhirad talked about how one key to making a difference is getting involved in your community, citing a phrase, “Think globally, act locally.”
“Part of this is to reach out,” she said. “We have to work more in our communities and talk to people.”
Palma closed out his opinion on the subject by posing a few questions to the audience.
“Can you support organizations that help immigrants? How many of you have called your representatives,” he said. “It’s something that is small but can make a difference in somebody’s life.”
The Forums on Tolerance at NSCC will continue on Oct. 19 and 20 with a forum titled “Race, Power, Privilege: Building Allies.”