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OUR OPINION: In America, new 'mob' condemns rather than resorts to violence

A person started the fire at Grand Forks' Juba cafe. A crowd gathered afterward to help set things straight. Do you know something? That's reassuring news, in a crucially important way. Because there was a time in American history when those situ...

Our Opinion
Our Opinion

A person started the fire at Grand Forks' Juba cafe.

A crowd gathered afterward to help set things straight.

Do you know something? That's reassuring news, in a crucially important way. Because there was a time in American history when those situations might have been reversed.

Grand Forks police, fire and other officials rightly are being cautious in their statements about the fire, which an arsonist apparently started before dawn on Tuesday at the cafe that caters to Somali immigrants.

It looks like a hate crime. So does the racist graffiti that had been spray-painted on the cafe a few days earlier.

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But as Grand Forks residents and other Americans have learned in recent years, such incidents aren't always what they seem. So, it's best not to speculate before investigators finish their work, because the snap judgments made in the immediate aftermath of these events can turn out to be wrong.

That said, let's assume for the moment that the arson is exactly the hate crime that it appears. What message would that send about Grand Forks?

In our view, the message would be this: Sorry, arsonists, but your efforts aren't going to work. For Grand Forks now is decisively against you, and few residents would have it any other way.

To see this, think about a famous scene in "To Kill a Mockingbird," the novel that also was the source of the 1963 movie starring Gregory Peck.

At one point in the story-which is fiction, but powerfully reflects a certain era in the life of our nation-attorney Atticus Finch stands on the steps in front of a jailhouse door. He's faced by a lynch mob, who command Finch to step aside so they can hang the black suspect who's in the jail.

The mob, of course, represents the sense of the community at that time and place-a town in the deep South during the Great Depression. Finch is the loner who's determined to prevent an injustice.

And Finch succeeds-with the help of his 8-year-old daughter, Scout, who shames the mob with her innocent grace by reminding the members of their common humanity. ("'Hey, Mr. Cunningham; don't you remember me? ... I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter; he's a nice boy. Tell him 'Hey' for me, won't you?")

This timeless scene's power rests in its depiction of one man against a mob-one man who's in the right, against a crowd that's very much in the wrong.

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But there's a deeper power, too. It's the audience's awareness that much of America used to be "the mob," whereas today (even more than in 1963), the vast majority of Americans proudly would side with Finch.

That's the new "mob," in other words. In Grand Forks, it's the one that showed up hours after the Juba fire to hold a vigil in support of the cafe. It's the one that launched a crowd-funding campaign for the cafe that raised more than $15,000 in less than 24 hours.

It's the one whose commitment to democracy is strong and will not be swayed. And it's the one whose rejection of violence ensures arsonists will not get their way.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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