Scott Woods: What the Proud Boys Debacle Reveals About Columbus' Disinterest in Justice

A Columbus police officer high-fives a white supremacist—and the city’s political and civic establishment shrugs.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
The Proud Boys protest on High Street in Clintonville on Saturday morning.

My last couple of columns have been long and heavy so this week I'd like to stick to something light. Let's talk about white supremacy.

This past weekend, a drag queen storytime was canceled because members of the neo-Nazi group, the Proud Boys, threatened to be armed and on the scene in “protest” and made good on their promise. Details about what the police did or did not do in the interest of public safety are still under investigation, but we know at least one police officer was recorded giving a high-five to a Proud Boy. This is why you don’t hire police to protect events like this: They refuse to weed out bad actors, to the point that you cannot ever be sure what kind of officer you’ll be dealing with until it’s too late.

Columbus loves being in the national press for all the wrong reasons, and the wrong reasons usually involve the police. The police are a known quantity because they are a systemic and calculated problem. Everybody knows it from the mayor on down to your mail carrier. So to the person who is going to respond in the comments saying, “Prove it,” my response is, “No. You're either obtuse or late. And if 2020 didn’t get you square, nothing will.”

There are people who have to contend with the kind of terrorism that the Proud Boys inflict and then there are people who have opinions on that terrorism and what should be done in the face of it. I've little to no interest in getting into debates with activists or nonactivists or white supremacists or the police. I'm here to say that whoever the potential victim of such terrorism might be gets to decide if they want to be a victim on a given day. Being angry that the Red Oak storytime was canceled is fine. That's an emotion, and you are allowed to have your emotions. You are entitled to feel. But the ultimate arbiter of whether or not drag queens should be performing storytime in the face of terrorism are the drag queens performing storytimes. If you remove the concerns of victims from potential responses or solutions to terrorism, then you are already engaging with a failed ideology and movement. Such Monday morning quarterbacking exposes an astounding privilege of audacity.

There are manifestations of white supremacy in which ignoring or sucking the air out of the room or deplatforming is a viable tactic. Armed thugs waiting outside of storytimes is not one of those manifestations. To pretend as if you don't see them doesn’t change the attention they’re able to muster. What ends up happening is that they get press anyway because the media tends to cover people walking around neighborhoods with assault rifles dressed like extras in “Bushwick.”  All that nonopposition gets you is a one-sided narrative. So whatever the plan for security and justice is in situations like this, it doesn’t involve ghosting armed terrorists.

I am cursed with a burning desire to interrogate responses to evil. I frequently find myself contending more with people who claim to care about social ills—especially if they are traditionally in the victim pool—than those who commit the ills. This is because villains are typically obvious and straightforward. Wrongdoers are consistent, and their motives are generally basic and clear. It is the response to evil and wrongdoing that concerns me. However evil is defeated, it typically isn’t because we’ve changed a villain’s mind. It’s because we destroyed them or built a better way around them. My excavations aren’t even focused on victims as they are on the people who possess the privileges and resources to effect change on behalf of victims. The people who have all of the answers after the fact on the internet from behind a book; people who claim they want justice and equity when what they really want are seats at tables and titles. Or worse, to be able to do the things that their oppressors do but without animus. Change doesn’t come from Proud Boys. They’re rabid white supremacists protected by systems of law, and a disingenuous enforcement of those laws. I’m more concerned about civic and political Columbus’ perennially flaccid disinterest in justice. 

We live in a city where police literally dragged unarmed activists out of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast to applause, but high-fived a Proud Boy in the street. I have no faith that we have learned anything as a community in the dissonance-rich time between those two events. We have made strides, but not achieved the level of belief in nonpolice security that nets us liberty. I am not convinced Columbus wants justice. 

Scott Woods

Of all the cities I have ever visited touring this country, Columbus is the one most comfortable with its oppressions. At this stage in our city’s development, know that when it comes to social ills, there is never a question of ignorance at the root. It is only a question of taking a position—your actual willingness to stand in an act of defiance and change—over an opinion.  As it turns out, we are largely, with very few exceptions, a city of many opinions when it comes to justice, but with an equally rare number of institutions and leaders with positions aligned with the goal of manifesting it.

Poet Khalil Gibran once wrote: "An ambiguous refusal/is but a weak acceptance." What we accept becomes our fate. 

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.