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Though events like these have drawn outrage and understandably angry reactions from protesters who oppose hateful ideologies, one interaction at the event potentially signaled a new way forward.
Aaron Courtney, a 31-year-old football coach from Gainesville, Florida, gave a neo-Nazi a hug. Courtney, a black man, simply asked Randy Furniss, who was wearing a shirt emblazoned with swastikas, why he didn’t like him.
— Politics 4 Dummies (@Politics4dum) October 19, 2017
“Why don’t you like me, dog?” Courtney is heard saying in the video as he reaches out to hug Furniss.
Courtney told the New York Daily News he had never even heard of Spencer until he received a notice on his phone regarding the declaration of a state of emergency issued over the event. After researching the prominent, polarizing figure, Courtney decided to attend.
“I found out about what kind of person he was and that encouraged me, as an African-American, to come out and protest. Because this is what we’re trying to avoid. It’s people like him who are increasing the distance … between people,” Courtney said.
He recalled his interaction with Furniss, who was identified after the video went viral on social media:
“I had the opportunity to talk to someone who hates my guts and I wanted to know why. During our conversation, I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me? What is it about me? Is it my skin color? My history? My dreadlocks?’”
Courtney says Furniss simply stared off into the distance, ignoring his questions.
“After beating around the bush, and avoiding my questions, I asked him, I pleaded with him, I almost broke out in tears, growing increasingly angry because I didn’t understand.”
“Something in me said, ‘You know what? He just needs love. Maybe he never met an African-American like this,” Courtney told the Daily News, citing the teachers of his father, who is a bishop.
He told Furniss to give him a hug and wrapped his arms around him. Furniss initially resisted, but Courtney says that after his third attempt, he finally hugged him back.
“Why do you hate me?” Courtney asked. He says Furniss finally responded that he didn’t know.
“I believe that was his sincere answer. He really doesn’t know,” he said, adding that he believes their interaction made a difference.
“I honestly feel that was a step in the right direction, for him to take a picture with a guy that he hated when he woke up this morning.”
Courtney’s attitude runs in stark contrast to many of the violent and enraged reactions some Americans have displayed toward to the growth of prejudiced ideologies in the United States.
But it is not unheard of. Darryl Jones, an African-American musician, recently released a documentary called Accidental Courtesy in which he demonstrates his experience talking to members of the KKK as he fosters dialogue, tears down barriers, and challenges preconceived assumptions. He says he has directly contributed to at least 200 KKK members’ decisions to leave the hate group.