The presence of Yellow Vest members at the Gandhi Peace Festival leave many feeling frustrated

CW: References to white supremacy and homophobia

Hundreds marched down Main Street on Oct. 5 for the Gandhi-King-Mandela Peace March, an annual event honouring Gandhian principles as part of the 27th Gandhi Peace Festival. This year’s march held special significance, coming on the heels of the growing prominence of hate incidents in Hamilton.

Statistics Canada ranked Hamilton as the city with the highest rate of crime Among the contributing incidents are weekly interactions at city hall between the alt-right Yellow Vest movement and its counter-protestors, an attack at Hamilton Pride and hate-oriented graffiti.

For Rama Singh, a professor at McMaster University’s biology department and a member of the organizing committee for the Peace Festival, the growing need to wage action on hate and racism rendered Gandhian principles of peace and justice all the more relevant to the current socio-political climate.

“What we need as a nation is a conversation. That may sound simplistic, but honestly, in any community, any society, the only way to solve problems is to meet, discuss and decide,” Singh told The Hamilton Spectator.

It is with this motivation that Singh met with yellow vest members and invited them to attend the Oct. 5 march.

Not everyone left the Gandhi Peace event feeling that Singh’s intention to bridge differences were achieved. Cameron Kroetsch, a member of the Pride Hamilton board of directors, published a Facebook post on Oct 5. explaining how he felt about the presence of yellow vest members at the event.

“I was at the Gandhi Peace event today in #HamOnt and I left feeling rattled … Organizers invited members of the yellow vest crew to come to the event today. They said so, on stage, publicly, and called them friends. The vesters came, without their yellow vests, with their own friends and allies from other white supremacist groups,” he wrote.

Kroetsch provided an account of his experience at the Peace Festival, detailing the presence of white supremacists known for delivering racist vitriol and the homophobic overtones of Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s speech at the event, which Kroetsch described as ignorant.

“[Eisenberger] misspoke again of “the trans” and said things that revealed his troubling assumptions about marginalized communities,” said Kroetsch.

With regard to the decision to invite yellow vesters, he added, “It was the textbook definition of emboldening and legitimizing white supremacy. Vesters were invited to a peace festival by organizers, held up as special guests and friends, and chatted up by our Mayor as if they were nothing more than ‘concerned citizens’.”

Tina Fetner, chair of the department of sociology at McMaster, said that the organizing committee behind the Peace Festival is clearly on the side of anti-hate. Instead of vilification, she hopes that this event will highlight the difference between the Peace Festival committee and counter-protestors in how each party approaches the same goal of fighting hate and racism.

“The difference is one of strategy. Where the [Gandhi] Peace committee has a universalist understanding of peace and conflict that seeks to embrace all humans with love, the counter-protests to the Yellow Vest movement are dealing with the daily grind of resisting white nationalist, anti-LGBTQ growth in Hamilton by making their message and their protests unwelcome in the public sphere,” she explained.

The committee’s decision to invite members of the Yellow Vest movement, she added, undercut the philosophy that has been motivating people to protest against yellow vesters outside city hall over the past several months. The universalist approach has its drawbacks for the counter-protestors, such as exposing them to being filmed and risking harassment from yellow vesters.

Fetner calls the invitation a total reversal of the counter-protestors’ aims after they have been working week after week to organize protests against the Yellow Vest movement.

Since the march, Singh has issued an apology acknowledging the repercussions of the invitation.

“The Gandhi Peace Festival Committee does not endorse any hate groups … I apologize for the unintended pain and hurt caused. I commit to working more closely in the future with those confronting hateful elements within our community to make this a safe place for all,” he said.

Singh declined to issue a statement to the Silhouette, expressing his concern that it might deflect the focus from the recommendations for action that came out of the “Waging Action on Hate and Racism” conference held on Oct. 4. However, he encourages students to visit the “Gandhi 150 Exhibit: Taking Gandhi’s message to the world” at the McMaster University Student Centre.

Image courtesy of Photo C/O Barry Gray

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