Residents of the 'most racist town in America' say they're working hard to shake that reputation
Recent viral video bolstered image of Harrison, Ark., as racist, but residents disagree
This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
A resident of Harrison, Ark., — a town dubbed the most racist in America — says the town has been unfairly maligned, and they're working to fight racism within their community.
Kevin Cheri, a retired park superintendent of the nearby Buffalo National River who has lived in the town since 2007, said his town has "many good people here who do respect one another, who do care about one another."
"What we unfortunately still have, though, is this reputation that has been difficult to shake," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.
As a member of the Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations, Cheri has been working to rid the town of its racist image.
"Is there racism in Harrison? Sure, there's some, but no more — and a lot less — than a lot of other places in the United States," he said.
Harrison, which has a population of 13,000, has a long association with white supremacy, rooted in racial violence and riots that drove out Black residents in the early 1900s. Today there are still billboards promoting white supremacy in the town, and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — which is headquartered 24 kilometres away in Zinc, Ark., — uses a post office box in Harrison as its mailing address. The town's racist image was bolstered this summer by a viral video that showed residents verbally abusing a filmmaker holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
The town launched its task force on race relations in 2003, acknowledging on its website that Harrison "struggles with a widespread and long-lasting perception that we are dominated by bigotry and racism."
When he moved his family to Harrison 16 years ago, Fredi Mendez was aware of the town's reputation. Mendez, who was born in Mexico but moved to the U.S. as a child, said he experienced racism in other states growing up.
In Harrison, he initially put his two daughters into private school, where he thought they might be spared racist attitudes — but later decided his fears were unfounded.
"Really, we have never experienced any racism at all, my kids or I, in this community," said Mendez, owner of a car detailing shop.
"In fact, I'm very well known in this community and I get nothing but love."
While Cheri said he's also never experienced overt racism in the town, he pointed out that minorities face prejudice across the southern and midwestern U.S.
"You can walk into stores or businesses and sometimes you get stared at … you're the oddity — people don't see many of you," he said.
"Some of it is curiosity, some of it could be outright racist attitudes."
But Cheri was adamant that Harrison doesn't have a bigger racism problem than anywhere else in the country.
"As a Black man, don't tell me this is the most racist town in America. That's not true."
In late July, Los Angeles-based filmmaker, Rob Bliss, who runs a viral video marketing company known for videos with a social message, posted a video of himself standing in various locations in Harrison, holding a sign that said Black Lives Matter. The two-minute video shows a string of Harrison residents making violent threats and abusing Bliss with racial slurs, while disparaging the Black Lives Matter sign and movement.
Bliss told The Washington Post in July that he was motivated to bring discussions on race to "places where you wouldn't expect them."
The video quickly went viral, with the original post racking up almost 2.8 million views on YouTube.
The day after its release, Harrison Mayor Jerry Jackson denounced the video as "unfairly representing Harrison and eroding decades of work to overcome our past racist reputation."
While he said the behaviour in the video was "reprehensible and horrible beyond belief," he also described Bliss as a professional agitator who saw an opportunity to exploit Harrison, and was profiting from the attention, as well as a GoFundMe page set up in the video's wake.
On his YouTube page, Bliss said the GoFundMe is to address legal challenges from people depicted in the video.
Town fighting racist reputation, says Cheri
Cheri said residents have worked hard to reinvent the town's reputation, starting with conversations on racism.
"This town ... said: 'Wait, this is not us,' and chose to come together as a group and say: 'Look, we need to deal with this."
The task force hosts meetings where residents can discuss issues around racism, as well as brings in activists and guest speakers. It uses its social media platform to highlight the lives and experiences of Black residents, and has successfully campaigned to have several racist billboards removed from the town.
"We want to do all we can to show that that's not who we are — but also to address anything that occurs immediately when we can," Cheri said.
"That's why when some other billboards were put up in this town, we quickly acted and we were able to eliminate all but one."
The remaining billboard, which promotes white supremacist websites, has been in place since 2013, but gained attention when it was featured in the viral video.
There is no legal mechanism to remove the billboard, because it is situated on private land. Arkansas is one of the few U.S. states to not have hate crimes legislation, though efforts to introduce such a law are underway.
In August, the task force launched a petition asking the company that owns the billboard, Pro-Signs Inc., to take it down. The petition has so far gained more than 213,000 signatures. The company has told local media that it is just doing business, and it is the customer's First Amendment right to have the sign up.
Racism centre stage in election fight
Republican candidate Donald Trump has been accused of sowing division and trying to politically benefit from stoking racial tensions, while Democrat candidate Joe Biden has faced questions over his record on race, as well as accusations that he and his party take the Black vote for granted.
At the final presidential debate, Trump said nobody has done more for the Black community than he has, "with the exception of Abraham Lincoln."
Biden responded by calling Trump "one of the most racist presidents in modern history."
"He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one," he said. "Started off his campaign coming down the escalator saying he's going to get rid of those Mexican rapists. He's banned Muslims because they're Muslims."
Scott said the president has made a decision "not to stop and say: 'You know what? My perception of myself appears to be very different from the community that I am speaking about. How can I get on the same page with these individuals?'"
"It's just not something that he has actually done. And it doesn't appear to be something that he is going to do in these next few weeks."
Trump 'gets the job done'
According to the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker, Trump has a commanding lead in Arkansas as of Monday morning, with 59.7 per cent against Biden's 37.5 per cent.
In 2016, Trump won the state's six electoral college votes with 60.6 per cent of the ballot, ahead of Hillary Clinton's 33.7 per cent.
Mendez voted for Trump in 2016, and said he will do so again because the president aligns with his views on abortion and the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
"He's pretty much the most honest person I've ever known — a lot of people don't like him because he tells it like it is," he said.
He understands that some people disagree with the president's governing style, but doesn't think that matters.
"We're not hiring somebody for their personality, we're hiring somebody who gets the job done, and he gets the job done," he said.
The best thing that's come out of the Trump presidency is that he has wakened up the rest of white America, to realize just how bad racism is in this country.- Kevin Cheri
Cheri disagreed with Fredi, arguing that speaking your mind doesn't qualify you to be president.
"A person in an insane asylum speaks their mind, that doesn't give them the ability to run a country," he said.
He said he believes Trump's presidency has led to "neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others in this country feeling empowered."
But he said "the best thing that's come out of the Trump presidency is that he has wakened up the rest of white America to realize just how bad racism is in this country."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson, with additional tape gathering from Alice Driver.