VAHE GREGORIAN

In Columbia, hate meets its match as community stands with Michael Sam

Updated: 2014-02-16T04:20:10Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

— One time-honored way to contend with frothing hatred is to ignore it, to let it drown in its own venom. There is no reasoning with fanatics, after all.

But there is this to consider, too: Maybe if you’re not part of the solution, as activist Eldridge Cleaver once put it, you’re part of the problem.

And this, to which more than one University of Missouri student referred on Saturday: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to nonviolent resistance as “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”

So it was that approximately 2,000 students, members of the community and friends from near and far lined Stadium Boulevard on a frigid Saturday to form a peaceful “human wall” to trump a hate group masquerading as a religious entity.

“We didn’t want to be aggressive or in their face or fight fire with fire,” said co-organizer Alix Carruth, a sophomore from Texas who in orchestrating the event noted she is a Christian.

Instead, they mostly turned their backs to the group across the street as the line snaked closer to the epicenter.

Only few ever really looked that way, and then they went back to passing the roughly two hours swaying arm-in-arm or waving a U.S. flag and chanting “M-I-Z … Z-O-U” or singing “Old Missouri.”

“I don’t know this song; I wish I could sing along,” said former Mizzou lineman Max Copeland, who instead knows “Fight, Tiger.”

They wore rainbow pins that said “Stand With Sam” — as in Michael Sam, the former Tiger who last week announced he was gay and soon could become the first openly gay player in NFL history.

At the MU basketball game on Saturday, Sam declined to comment on the massive turnout on his behalf, saying only, “I love Mizzou.”

But plenty of others could speak for its meaning.

“We’re trying to stand up against that wall while still communicating a message of peace and love and acceptance, and I think this is a really good way to be able to express that,” Copeland said. “The only thing that matters when you’re part of a brotherhood is, ‘Are you a good dude, and do you get your job done?’ Why would anything else matter? …

“I can see that as just a good general policy for life. ‘Do you get your work done and are you a good dude? All right, you’re through; you’re one of us. Next case.’ ”

Around Copeland, some yelled approval from nearby dorm rooms and cars honked as they passed. Some wore shirts that read, “We Are All CoMoSexuals,” a statement that freshman Christina Rees from Indianapolis explained well.

“The reason I got the shirt is that Columbia as a whole is standing behind him, it’s not just … certain sexual orientations,” she said. “We as a whole are trying to show that we stand for him. …

“I personally myself am straight, but I always have supported people with what they decided to love and who they decide to love, and I think Michael Sam’s choice (to come out) was amazing and really brave.”

As much strife as the matter of acceptance has caused, momentum is forming against this bastion of bigotry. And it will only become more so.

Because that’s the prevailing wave of this next generation.

“I think the fact that we’re willing to take a stand against the discrimination says something about our age,” Rees said. “We don’t define people by that any more.”

You could see it in the turnout and hear it in the sophisticated voices of young people who just don’t understand the furor and fascination that this issue holds for some of their elders.

Near tears as she gazed across the street, freshman Sophie Morrison said, “I’ve never seen another human being hate someone else for no reason at all.”

She noted that in her hometown in suburban Chicago “really, really popular kids were gay, and nobody thought anything of it. … I don’t even understand why anyone cares. I don’t even think it should be, ‘Oh, congratulations, you’re gay.’ No one makes a big deal because I’m straight. Why is it news? I kind of feel the same way I felt when CNN did a ‘breaking news’ because Jennifer Lawrence cut her hair. No one should care. It’s not anyone’s business.”

But it will be … until it isn’t.

“This is going to serve as a test, not for Mike for but the people around him and the society around him,” Copeland said.

Copeland meant going forward, but the day itself was a test of sorts.

From all appearances, the group was exemplary in adhering to what Carruth and roommate Kelaney Lakers set out to achieve when they organized, largely through Facebook.

And it brought out not only those supporting Sam but others who were standing up for their own relatives or friends or even themselves.

“I am a gay athlete, too,” said a high school junior swimmer from St. Louis who said he is “very open about it” but that he believes the broader statement of Saturday is significant. “I think the fact that it’s cold is almost better, because it shows the resolve and it shows that we are not only committed to love and respect for each other on good days but also on bad days.”

There was one inappropriate sign wielded, but little evident engagement despite temptation to do otherwise — a crucial aspect of the day’s success.

“I can’t just apply this (being accepting and loving) to people that I know, and people that I like,” Copeland said. “I love Mike. Well, it’s easy to say I love and accept a dude that I love, but what about people I don’t agree with? They’re standing across the street from me.

“This is a challenging rule, a (King) rule: Non-violence and peace is about not only refusing to shoot the man but refusing to hate him. It’s easy not to shoot someone; it’s hard not to hate people.”

As he looked around, Copeland felt a surge of pride in what this signified and a sense of “people growing” even as they stood there on Saturday.

Maybe it was wishful thinking.

But it’s also hard to dispute that Mizzou on Saturday was part of a solution and made a more meaningful statement than it would have by ignoring what was being visited upon its campus.

“We won’t back down,” said Emilee Sherertz, a freshman from St. Louis whose sweet and gentle voice only amplified the conviction of her words. “Times are changing, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be today.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/vgregorian.

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