Dangerous vigilante fantasies must end
What does Jason Aldean have to do with the recent uproar over a transgender person using the swimming pool at the Waynesville Rec Center?
As The Smoky Mountain News reported this week, someone started a rumor on Facebook that a transgender person, whom the person making the post called a full-grown man, changed into a bikini in the women’s locker room in front of women and young girls. Without any kind of proof, dozens of people took the bait without any hesitation. Some of the comments have been heinous.
“Somebody would get got for sure.”
“To (sic) bad the dad’s (sic) weren’t there to put him in the e.r.”
“better not happen on my watch I’m going to jail.”
And so on.
This made me think of several other times I’ve seen unfounded fear grip parts of this community — fear that spreads like wildfire thanks to social media. For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention three that stick out.
In July 2020, I covered a Black Lives Matter march through Maggie Valley that became heated when 200 counter-protesters showed up, many saying they were ready to defend their community from riotous outsiders. However, the couple dozen folks marching were from Haywood and Buncombe counties and were not only peaceful, they were terrified, as counter-protesters hurled threats and blatantly racist language at them.
“Get your ass off the property, you piece of shit,” one man, who thought I was marching with the group, yelled at me.
“You’re in the wrong neighborhood, boy,” another man said.
“How much are you getting paid? Who’s paying you?” one woman asked the marchers.
“You’re bad when these cops are here,” one man said. “Son, I’ll hurt you bad.”
With one small spark, violence could have erupted.
Another rumor circulated as the homeless crisis in Buncombe County began spiraling out of control when a popular blogger posted a photo of a bus he alleged was transporting homeless people from big cities to this area. A simple reverse image search revealed that the bus depicted in the photo was not transporting anyone; it was listed for sale in Georgia.
There have been several times I’ve had to dispel social media rumors that human traffickers were targeting women and children at Waynesville’s Walmart. The first time I heard about it, a quick call to the Waynesville Police Department put that blatant lie to rest.
“We’ve had no reported incidents of human trafficking or attempted human trafficking on the Walmart, nor have we received any reports of such incidents through state briefings,” then-chief Bill Hollingsed said.
Not long after that, the save the children movement, which was fueled by QAnon and grossly distorted this country’s actual human trafficking problem, picked up steam, and I saw the conspiracy theories spread locally. When I interviewed District Attorney Ashley Welch, she pointed out that those who traffic or abuse children around Western North Carolina aren’t connected to some high-level ring that includes celebrities and politicians — and they certainly weren’t dragging children away from their parents in public places.
“Mostly our office deals with cases that involve victims and defendants that know one another — in other words very rarely are we dealing with stranger cases,” she said. “The public seems to think human trafficking is only cases that involve strangers, and usually what we see involves people that know one another such as family members, friends and et cetera.”
This last example ties in with the outrage surrounding the unsubstantiated post about the trans person in the women’s locker room. The people who bought that lie felt as though they didn’t need to verify whether the allegation was true because that’s how they’ve been told trans people act. Some people don’t look for facts; they’d rather confirm their fears and biases.
These fears and biases are easy to exploit, and those looking to sow division thrive on that.
This brings me to Jason Aldean. His song, “Try that in a small town,” has caused quite a stir, especially after CMT pulled the video because the song contained lyrics that the network said glorified gun violence and conveyed traditionally racist ideas. I can’t say I was personally offended or triggered by the song, although I understand why others may feel that way. I just feel concerned about the glorification of vigilante justice that hearkens back to lynching.
“Cuss out a cop, spit in his face/Stomp on the flag and light it up/Yeah, ya think you’re tough/Well, try that in a small town/ See how far ya make it down the road/Around here, we take care of our own/ You cross that line, it won’t take long/For you to find out, I recommend you don’t.”
I read that not as a message of the unity that people in small towns cherish; I didn’t even read it as a warning to would-be outside agitators. It’s written for those who harbor fantasies of vigilantism.
Those who defend the song’s message may want to say “If you ain’t causing any trouble, you ain’t got any reason to be concerned.” But there’s a problem. The person wishing to simply enjoy the rec center wasn’t causing any trouble, but if social media is any indication, they have ample reason to be concerned.