Vigilantism is rising again across America.
Instead of the hardcore racists of the Jim Crow era, these new protectors of the realm are social justice warriors who form Twitter mobs in cyberspace where they condemn the accused without trials or basic facts.
And once again they are being abetted by mainstream news outlets that stoke and amplify the rage of today’s left-wing hatemongers as they did that of reactionaries a century ago.
The latest example occurred last month in Wendell where, media outlets reported, a “social media firestorm” was ignited by a Facebook post listing the supposedly discriminatory rules at a local pool.
At issue was the Outdoor Recreation Center’s prohibition against “baggy pants,” “dread-locks/weaves/extensions” and “revealing clothes,” which was immediately determined to be an effort to exclude African-Americans.
The News & Observer’s coverage included a story which said the ban “may be resonating with some people who remember segregated beaches, black theater balconies with separate entrances, and signs over courthouse water fountains that read, ‘COLORED’ or ‘WHITE.’”
The paper also ran an op-ed by a Duke University professor who said the rules reflect a broader effort by whites, “often in collusion with law enforcement, to police black behavior.”
My fake news alarm pinged as I read such reports which were rife with accusations of white supremacist behavior but empty of evidence to support these damning claims.
Most accounts did include denials from the pool’s owners, John and Teresa Freeman, who said they didn’t know what dreadlocks were and just wanted prohibit artificial hair from clogging the pool’s filters. But their explanations were drowned out in coverage that touted racist pool rules and stories which made little effort to see if African-Americans were actually being excluded.
So I called John Freeman. He told me that he posted the rules when he opened the pool six years ago and that no one had complained since. To the best of his memory, he recalled asking “two or three people” to pull up their pants and one woman to remove her hair extensions if she wanted to swim.
Freeman estimated that perhaps 20 to 30% of his pool’s members are African-Americans. About 19% of Wendell’s approximately 7,809 residents are black, according to the Census.
When the pool closes for the season, he runs an auction on the site, where many of the bidders are African-Americans.
Two African-Americans who have known Freeman for decades said he is not racist. Donal Gooch, 62, who runs a horseback and bull riding outfit, said Freeman came to his assistance a few years ago when a white landowner “didn’t want me crossing their property. John talked to them and worked things out. … He always calls reminding me to come to the auction.”
Otis Bumpers, a 68-year-old retiree, said he has known Freeman “since he was a baby” and “I’ve never seen anything racist from him.”
Both men were surprised by the charge of racism because “John has black grandkids.”
When I called Freeman back, he said he hadn’t mentioned this because he didn’t want to drag his family into this ugly mess. “All I’ll say now is that my son-in-law is one of the finest men I know.”
Freeman said his wife “has been crying” since the hateful accusations went viral. The incident has persuaded him to retire after the season closes, opening the possibility that soon no one will have a place to swim.
Freeman understands that his pool rules could be seen as racially insensitive. He wishes someone had brought this to his attention so he could explain his thinking; instead he was another victim of the mob that acts as judge, jury and executioner.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.