SLC Mayor’s staff reflect on an art exhibit transforming hate into love

The photograph of Timothy McVeigh was one of many disarming displays at the “Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate” art exhibit at the Ogden Union Station. McVeigh’s pleasant and relaxed stare belies the fact he left a truck filled with explosives at the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1996—killing 168 people and injuring 680 others.

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Members of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s staff was led by Deputy Chief of Staff David Litvack to see the exhibit earlier this year. More than 30 pieces of art were included at the exhibit. All of the art was created or inspired by 3,500 books written by Ben Klassen, a white supremacist who wrote many hate books including The White Man’s Bible.

A hate group defector donated the books to the Montana Human Rights Network. The anti-bigotry group then asked artists to transform the hate speech into artwork promoting love and diversity.

“I think our office staff members embody inclusiveness and equity, not only in our work but who we are as people,” said David. “It was a good opportunity to spend time together as a staff so we can think and talk deeper about what we are doing and who we are. The artists took words of hate and intolerance and made them into a vehicle for inclusion and justice.”

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The Oklahoma City bombing was likely inspired by a book called The Turner Diaries, a fictional account of white supremacists starting a race war by blowing up FBI headquarters with a truck bomb.

At the exhibit, an excerpt from The Turner Diarieswas placed below McVeigh’s photo: “But there is no way we can destroy the System without hurting many thousands of innocent people—no way, it is a cancer too deeply rooted in our flesh.”

William Pearce, the author of The Turner Diaries, made several efforts to recruit Utahns to join his white supremacist organization called the National Alliance. David Litvack, a former member of the Utah House of Representatives, met with National Alliance members during a town hall in Salt Lake City. Pearce’s group referred to him as the “Jewish legislator.”

On the night after the meeting, David’s wife and a friend were walking out the door when they surprised a woman who was about to throw a rock through the window of their home. The woman ran and then sped away in a very noisy truck.

“I stayed up all night and was scared whenever I heard a loud truck,” remembered David. “Even though I was a state legislator, these people hated me and my family because we are Jewish. Throwing a rock is really the epitome of dehumanization and hate.”

The exhibit addresses many historical events and issues like the Holocaust, lynchings, immigration and the fear and distrust of foreigners. It was eye-opening for the Mayor’s staff, which includes people from different ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds.

Moana Uluave-Hafoka is the Mayor’s policy advisor for community for outreach diversity and human rights. Her husband and her parents are immigrants from Tonga.

“The exhibit made me think about how much has changed but also how little progress has been made over time,” she said. “There are still too many people who believe the country will be great by shutting out asylum seekers.”

The piece of art that stood out most for Moana was a large copy of a page from one of the hate books. The artist added edits to show how even a hate message could be made more palatable for a general audience. “Even with the edits the page still had the same message and the same kind of language you hear on some talk shows,” said Moana. “People are still making the case for the demise of ‘others’ in our country.”

SV Fatima

Fatima Dirie, the Mayor’s refugee community liaison, said she was also moved by the artwork. Fatima is an advocate for human rights and social justice issues. She is also a refugee from Somalia.

“The exhibit is amazing,” said Fatima. “It captures so much of what is happening today. There are so many people who are migrating and trying to find refuge. They don’t know about us and we don’t know about them and so there is fear.”

Fatima was impressed with one exhibit that took pages from the hate books to create origami cranes—symbols of peace. She said this piece of art is a good metaphor for life. “We argue about diversity but when you bundle everything together, it creates something beautiful.”

The Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate exhibit is no longer in Ogden but it will be on display in cities across the country in the future. For the Mayor’s staff and others who visited the exhibit, the art offers a visual and visceral warning on how easy it is for hateful speech to turn into hurtful actions—but it also leaves room for hope.

“I still have hope because these types of exhibits exist,” concluded Moana, “And plenty of people will keep working towards equity and inclusion.”

More information about the exhibit can be found at https://mhrn.org/speakingvolumes/.

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