Baraboo plans community forums on racism

November 15, 2018

Associated with racism after circulation of a controversial photo of local students, Baraboo is working to change public perception and address intolerance in the community.

A forum will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Baraboo Civic Center to discuss the cause and impact of a pre-prom group photo that appears to show boys making gestures associated with white supremacy. Mayor Mike Palm said a committee is being assembled to help the community heal.

“This is grassroots. This is coming from people of the community,” Palm said during Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.

Several council members and community leaders spoke about the incident, which made international news and generated furious feedback.

Accounts vary as to whether the boys were merely waving at the photographer or delivering a Nazi salute. Also in question is who downloaded the image from photographer Peter Gust’s website and shared it via social media and why.

The mood in the council chamber was somber as residents and council members shared their thoughts and feelings on the controversy. One resident, Les Moeller, encouraged the council to issue a statement of condemnation. He described school Superintendent Lori Mueller’s statement on the matter as “tepid at best” and said the incident should be investigated as a hate crime.

“I’m disgusted by what I saw,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people are going to want to move to Baraboo or start companies if they think this is Charlottesville, or worse, Pittsburgh.”

Council member Tom Kolb said the incident has counteracted Baraboo’s efforts to promote itself as an exemplary community. The Ringling brothers’ hometown has been listed among America’s most prosperous and promising small towns, but now has acquired a reputation for racism.

“I find that discouraging,” Kolb said. “We’ve strived hard to cultivate a national reputation.”

“It’s not what Baraboo is about,” council member John Alt said.

Jewish Baraboo resident Marcy Huffaker said she doesn’t feel the boys pictured are racist or anti-Semitic, but they need education about the Holocaust, an atrocity that claimed some of her family members.

“I do believe as a community we need to step up and take some action and make some change,” she said.

Her husband, Buddy Huffaker, said restorative justice is in order, perhaps by covering World War II more thoroughly in Baraboo High School curriculum and starting a community dialogue about hate speech. The high school is hosting a public forum at 6 p.m. Monday.

Council member Phil Wedekind, a veteran, said he feels the boys were merely waving at the camera. “I’m really angry over this,” he said.

“It’s young kids hopefully not understanding what they’re doing,” council member Scott Sloan said.

Council member Michael Zolper said his son appears in the photo, and the incident prompted discussion at his home.

“Words and actions matter,” he said. “I love this place, and it hurts.”

Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce President Nanci Caflisch said the community needs to act to change public perception.

“Racism and intolerance have no place in Baraboo,” she said. “We must hold everyone accountable.”

Palm pointed to a photo opportunity organized this week in response to the furor as an example of how healing can start. Concerned citizens made signs advocating love and peace and posed for a picture on the same Sauk County Courthouse steps where the pre-prom photo was shot.

“Look for the helpers. Look for the people who are rising out of this,” he said.

“This is an opportunity,” Common Council President Joel Petty said. “It’s a very teachable moment.”

“We need to move forward from this,” City Administrator Ed Geick said. “We have all worked so hard to make this community what it is.”

“I trust we will all recover from this and be a better community for it,” Petty said. “We need to respect all opinions regarding this.”

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