Montclair has a reputation for being a diverse and welcoming community.

But, the panelists at a March 4 town hall on eliminating hate and discrimination said, not even Montclair is immune to bias incidents, or the threat of white nationalism.

The town hall, “Confronting Hate in Our Communities,” was hosted and moderated by Mayor Sean Spiller. 

“We have been on a slow, but steady climb toward Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop,” Spiller said in a statement released ahead of the town hall. “While we have made much progress in the pursuit of justice and equality, we have a long way to go. We must confront history, but also rise to this moment in history. Hate lurks in the shadows everywhere, including here in Montclair,”

The presenters at the panel were law enforcement officials, elected officials and advocates at the county, state and local levels. 

In May of 2020, residents and law enforcement began finding stickers for the white nationalist group Patriot Front. Police found the stickers were mainly appearing at locations in the vicinity of Porter Park, near Harrison Avenue and Orange Road. Residents also reported seeing the stickers at the corner of Valley Road and Claremont Avenue, near the corners of Warren Place and Gates Avenue on Harrison Avenue, and near the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Orange Road. 

“What they’re trying to do is get noticed,” Montclair Police Lt. Tyrone Williams said. “They’re trying to increase membership. They’re trying to recruit.” 

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the organization as “an image-obsessed organization that rehabilitated the explicitly fascist agenda of Vanguard America with garish patriotism. Patriot Front focuses on theatrical rhetoric and activism that can be easily distributed as propaganda for its chapters across the country.”

The same SPLC report describes Vanguard America as a neo-Nazi group that was involved in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017.

“It’s a multi-racial, multicultural town. We tolerate everything,” Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Romesh Sukhdeo, a Montclair resident, said. “I was surprised to see these stickers were appearing.” 

Sukhdeo said the stickers were the work of a “small, small” group of people, and that it was important for authorities and residents to be aware of what was happening. 

Scott Richman of the Anti-Defamation League said there were 11 reported bias incidents in Montclair last year, and 10 were white supremacy-based. 

Nationally, incidents have been on the rise for several years, he said, but the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — where crowds stormed into the building and five people were fatally injured —  “was a moment that was extremely troubling.”

“This isn’t something that came out of the blue. This is something that’s been on the horizon,” Detective Izzy Chaudhry of the Division of Criminal Justice said. “Over the past five years, deepening divisions in the country began to ferment, with a rise in white nationalism and white supremacy.”

If there is a silver lining, Richman said, it is that seeing what happened at the Capitol galvanized many people to take action. 

Denalerie Johnson-Faniel, Law and Public Safety’s director of outreach and community relations for the Civil Rights Division in the Office of the Attorney General, said there have been two pandemics ongoing. One is the COVID-19 pandemic; the other is the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 and systemic racism have had on Black and brown people, she said.

Johnson-Faniel said the Civil Rights Division has seen bias incidents more than double in recent years, and that there have been many cases involving youth harassment and extremism among young people. 

Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens said bias incidents can be very difficult to investigate. He added, however, that Essex County is fortunate to not have experienced as many bias incidents as other areas of the country. 

In response to a question on whether Essex County was experiencing a spate of bias crimes against Asian Americans, as have been seen in New York, San Francisco and other areas, Stephens said there has not yet been a documented increase, but the prosecutor’s office has been examining incident reports to see if any trends exist. The office has also been engaging in outreach in Asian and Asian American communities, he said, to encourage people to report any incidents they witness or experience. 

Detective Weldon Powell, from the state Division of Criminal Justice, seconded that bias crimes can be difficult to investigate, but said the DCJ noted takes all incidents very seriously. It is helpful, he said, that all of the law enforcement officials on the panel know each other and their respective agencies. Furthermore, he said, that evening’s panel was not the end of the conversation, but part of an ongoing dialogue, and a chance to share information. 

County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident, said that for elected officials, it is crucial to speak out against hate speech and bias incidents. He also said it was important to focus on civics, and get more people engaged in the government process, as well as to educate all those involved on how to recognize bias incidents. At the county level, he said, there has been an effort to improve anti-bias training for county employees.

“We pride ourselves on being a tolerant community,” Gill said. “It’s part of the fabric and history of our township.” 

He said political speech does need to be protected, but people need to recognize that there are things, such as hate speech, on which there can be no disagreement. And Montclair still has its own issues with systemic racism, he said.

“What I believe is, hate is oftentimes taught, it’s learned,” he said. “You’re not born with it innately.” 

Sukhdeo recalled when he and his family moved to Montclair in 1975 when he was a child, and he started attending Bradford School.

“And the kids were calling me ‘burnt toast.’ And it was really pissing me off.” He told his mother about the bullying. “‘They were probably raised that way,’” he recalled her saying to him. 

He now has two elementary school-age children in the Montclair schools. It was encouraging, he said, that Black History Month was being fully embraced by the schools, including by his children’s white classmates, and that it wasn’t a token celebration.

“I think the way our kids are being raised in Montclair is the right way,” he said.