Tutt Library’s disruption was personal to me

An ugly incident occurred at the Virginia Tutt Branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library on June 27. According to a story published in the South Bend Tribune two days later, approximately six men (and their own videographer) belonging to what has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist hate group, decided to interfere with a library program. The program scheduled for 5 p.m., was billed as Rainbow Family Story Time and was meant to promote gender inclusivity in an age appropriate manner, according to library employee Marissa Gebhard.

The intruding group, who call themselves Proud Boys, has reportedly promoted a nationwide effort to disrupt LGBTQ+ events at public libraries. For years, they have also been connected with acts of violence against people they hate. Their national leader and other members have been charged with seditious conspiracy for their part in the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol breach.

“You’re grooming these children’s minds. This is our region and we will not have that in our region,” the Tribune reports these black-clad enforcers stated.

 Region? Who appointed them authority over any municipality or the content of any public gathering? Who might have emboldened these self-appointed monitors? One culprit is a former president who famously refused to denounce the Proud Boys when given the chance to do so during a national debate, and instead instructed them to “stand back and stand by.” 

For me this is personal. My mom was a librarian at the Tutt branch starting in the 1970s when it was at Miami and Bowman, and she eventually retired in 1992 from the newer branch at Ewing and Miami. For years at both locations, she was the story hour lady and she loved doing it. She was school-teacher strict, but encouraged children to develop a lifetime love of reading of all sorts. Even now, parents and students come up to her and tell her how much they enjoyed the library story hours.

The Tutt Library has a varied demographic of patrons. To the north and west are the working class neighborhoods in the Riley High School district. To the south and east are homes of some of South Bend’s wealthier residents and the private Stanley Clark School. Also to the south is the Hebrew Orthodox Congregation on High Street. These diverse people call the Tutt Library their community library. Hundreds of their children attended my mom’s story hours for decades.

What would the Proud Boys have done if my mom had read a book about the Holocaust? Would they have objected to it with vile comments about “white replacement”? What if my mom had read a book about this nation’s original sin of enslaving African Americans? Would they have objected because that was all in the distant past?

Book banning is on the rise in the United States, spearheaded by self-appointed censors, politicized school boards, and state legislators. According to the American Library Association, hundreds of “book challenges” were filed in 2021 at an unprecedented rate. Most of the objections have to do with books about race, gender, and sexuality. The banning efforts seem less like locally generated conversations and more like nationally organized and well-funded political efforts. These censorship attempts are an integral part of what the Proud Boys and similar organizations are about.

The June 27 altercation at the Tutt Library lasted for about 45 minutes and involved library staff,  library security, and eventually the South Bend police. Ultimately the event was postponed. If we leave it at that, these bullies win. If the event is rescheduled and plenty of people attend in support, a clear message will be sent to the Proud Boys that they have no authority to disrupt public events.

The late German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, an outspoken critic of Hitler, once spoke the following:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 The Proud Boys may incorrectly interpret the poem as a roadmap toward the white nationalist nation they desire. All of us should read the poem again as a warning that we cannot allow coordinated acts of intimidation to go unchallenged.

 If we don’t step up, America will continue down the path of authoritarianism that is already well underway.