By Oscar Gamle
NORRISTOWN >> The Montgomery County Commissioners set aside a few moments before and after Thursday’s meeting to address a topic of national importance.
As the first order of business, after the Pledge of Allegiance, each of the commissioners made a brief statement about the tragic events Aug. 13 in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counterprotester was killed and two Vigrginia state troopers lost their lives responding to a “Unite the Right” rally opposing the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, which was formerly named after the Confederate general.
“The response that I’ve seen across Montgomery County to the past weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville has been reaffirming and inspirational to me,” said Commissioner Valerie Arkoosh, noting held and scheduled county-wide peace and unity vigils.
She said she spoke at one such vigil in Abington Township Wednesday night in which hundred of people “from all backgrounds faiths and political parties” were “drawn together with the firm understanding that creating a moral equivalency between hatemongers like the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups and those that stand up in opposition to racism and anti-Semitism is just plain wrong.”
“There were not two sides to the reprehensible actions taken last week in Charlottesville that left an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, dead as well as two Virginia state troopers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates,” Arkoosh said.
Varkoosh went on to quote the “unalienable rights” clause of the Declaration of Independence and asked that people be vigilant of discrimination in all its forms, large and small.
“As Americans and as patriots, we have a moral responsibility to stand up to these hate groups and to also look out for each other,” she said.
Commissioner Ken Lawrence Jr. echoed Arkoosh’s remarks and said he wasn’t able to attend the vigil in Abington Wednesday because he was at the Solidarity Run in Norristown Farm Park, organized by Victims’ Services Center of Montgomery County, Run 610 and the Norristown Running Club in support of a female jogger who was sexually assaulted in the park Aug. 1.
“With all these things going on and all this turmoil it is just so reaffirming to see that our citizens are standing up, organizing and joining together to show that love does overcome hate,” Lawrence said.
Commissioner Joe Gale began his remarks by saying he “totally denounce(d) all the actions that took place in Charlottesville a few days ago.”
“And as a man of faith,” he said, “I am praying and will continue to pray for peace in America and around the world. In times of trouble, distress and pure evil, we must turn to God.
“The hateful rhetoric on both sides must end,” Gale said. “Let’s not forget the tragic events in recent years. We’ve seen a series of protests, Black Lives Matter protests that turned violent. There was looting, there were buildings that were placed on fire and so much violence. We’ve seen five Dallas police officers that were murdered. We’ve seen Bernie Sanders supporters open fire on a baseball field filled with congressmen, all in recent years.
“So times like this remind all of us that we have to stop the hateful rhetoric on both sides and turn to God and keep everyone in our thoughts and prayers. Thank you.”
Later, at a press briefing after the meeting, Gale, the sole Republican commissioner, refused to say whether his statement meant that he was in agreement with President Donald Trump, who has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans for saying “many sides” were to blame for what occurred in Charlottesville.
“It was clear that all three of us condemn violence at all levels,” Gale said. “But further discussion on this would turn into a debate unless it’s done in a public setting that’s transparent. I’d like the press to contact me directly with your questions on that issue and manner.”
“I believe that trying to equate any kind of moral equivalency between the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups, and those individuals in Charlottesville who were standing up against racism and anti-Semitism is just absolutely wrong,” Arkoosh countered. “And I’m concerned that Commissioner Gale is losing touch with his constituents here in Montgomery County. He’s rarely here. When you look at his Facebook or Twitter page he is frequently in Berks or Bucks or Chester county.”
She went on to say it was “really hard” for her to understand what could have been more important for Gale than accepting an invitation to a recent commissioners’ trip to Washington D.C., which she and Lawrence attended, to meet with various cabinet-level officials, and said Gale had spoken to a group, the Berks County Patriots, who are listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website as an extreme anti-government group.
“So that’s just not what constituents in Montgomery County, I think, are looking for in their elected leaders and I’m concerned with that,” she said.
“What I understand is that organization has a lot of false claims,” said Gale of the SPLC. “And it seems that any movement against a far-left liberal agenda is now labeled a hate group, and meanwhile, we have organizations like Planned Parenthood killing innocent unborn babies and selling their baby parts, but the fake news does not want to cover that because it does not fit the fake narrative and that’s an example.”