Strip away all emotions so that fear, outrage and love are pushed out of the equation, and what occurred in a Northern Virginia county last week comes down to basic math.
It started with the simplest of numbers: one.
One small plastic bag filled with birdseed and a piece of paper sat in Eliza Thompson’s Arlington driveway last Saturday morning. When she and her husband opened it, they found a flier with “Ku Klux Klan” printed in the lower corner above the words, “WAKE UP WHITE AMERICA!”
The rest of the flier flung insults at immigrants and offered lies about their burden on the country. Among the derogatory claims: “Illegals also lower the effectiveness of education by adding confusion of multiple languages and their Lower Mexican Intelligence.”
“I was so angry I couldn’t even talk,” Thompson said. She and her husband left to run errands and get lunch with their two young children, ages 1 and 3, but they did so silently seething. “We were just quiet. Outraged and quiet.”
Later, after neighbors started comparing discoveries, the math changed. There wasn’t just one flier. There were four.
Four types of fliers, all claiming to be from the KKK, were left at homes up and down the block near East Falls Church. Each sheet of paper attacked a different group of people. One warned against Jews holding too much power. Another declared, “Blacks are taking over your TOWN as you read this.” The last derided Starbucks and anyone who wasn’t white.
At that moment, Thompson and her neighbors faced a choice that people across the nation now encounter weekly: Should they toss those sheets of paper in the trash? Or should they act to counter those racist messages?
Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center said she gets a report each week on the places where hate fliers have been distributed and on it, there are always at least a half-dozen locations and sometimes a couple dozen. They began to show up at homes and on college campuses in increasing numbers after the 2016 election, she said.
Brooks advised against ignoring them.
“If there is no community response,” she said, “the purveyors of the hate take that as a sign that their hate is welcome or there is indifference.”
Thompson didn’t feel indifferent.
She felt pushed to act. So did her neighbors and their neighbors, which is what makes what happened in Arlington this week an incredible display of the power in numbers.
Ten. That’s how many signs bearing a heart and the message “Hate Has No Home Here” that Thompson ordered that same day.
She and her neighbors also put together an anti-hate flier that listed ways people could counter racism. Among the suggestions: talk to their children, donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center and join the NAACP.
They then placed nearly 200 of those fliers into plastic bags filled with Smarties and started distributing them.
Four hateful fliers in just a few days had suddenly become 10 anti-hate signs and 200 candy-filled bags calling for unity.
“I think there is a place and a time to ignore something,” Thompson said. But the KKK fliers were about more than just “one or two racists in our backyard,” she said. “Outrage is not enough. I think at this point, you need to take action.”
Thompson took one more step that pushed the issue beyond her block: She turned to social media and posted the racist propaganda on there, uncensored, because she believes “white people need to know there is this level of hatred out there.”
The outrage multiplied.
Susan Robinson, who lives 4½ miles from Thompson, was among the Arlington residents who saw the online post. Robinson then shared the image, also uncensored, on her neighborhood’s Nextdoor site. She included a message saying she planned to place a bulk order of the “Hate Has No Home Here” signs.
What she didn’t say in that post was how she has wrestled with those words. She has been filled with “hatred and anger” at what she has witnessed under the Trump administration, she said. She has seen, along with the rest of the country, immigrant families torn apart, videos of people spewing racist insults at others and the same white nationalists who led a deadly gathering in Charlottesville plan a march in the nation’s capital.
“I’m really scared in the most existential way,” Robinson said. “All of us are kind of saying, ‘What do we do?’”
She understands the urge to turn away because it can feel overwhelming, but she believes these hate groups are counting on, “the numbing of the masses.”
“White supremacists are going to hold a rally. Do you stay quiet or show up?” Robinson said. “My feeling now is you show up.”
After Robinson posted about the signs, one response popped up one after another from her neighbors, until there were nearly 70. (On a different site, she received 30 more.)
“I’d love one of those signs!” read one response.
“I’ll take 2 signs,” read another.
“I’d take 5, 4 for myself and friends and one for Richard Spencer,” read a third, referring to the prominent white nationalist who lives in Alexandria, Va.
Six days after one hateful flier landed in an Arlington driveway, Robinson stood on her gray-paneled porch looking at five large boxes filled with 250 anti-hate signs. She marveled at the volume and wondered if she had ordered enough.