In Keene, Charlottesville Connection Greeted with Discomfort and Dismay

Aug 18, 2017

Yard signs around Keene celebrate diversity, welcoming those of all races to the community. Many in town were shaken to learn that a neighbor harbored violent racist views.
Credit Britta Greene / NHPR

Christopher Cantwell has been in the news in Keene this week. The city resident - and white nationalist - was featured in a Vice documentary about the clashes in Charlottesville that aired on HBO and went viral online. In the footage, he expresses his hatred for black people and Jews.

Cantwell moved to Keene about five years ago, inspired by the Free State Project. That group later removed him as a participant and banned him from events. Keene city officials have known about him for some time, but it was only after this weekend’s events in Charlottesville that most people first learned his name.

For many in the community, the local connection has been tough to process, complicating an already tense and emotional week

Credit A still from Vice News "Charlottesville: Race and Terror"

Responding to the news, Mark Ferrin, a pastor at Keene’s First Baptist Church, called Cantwell on Thursday. In a voicemail, he asked Cantwell to talk, to get together sometime, to find out what they have in common.

Ferrin also called the local newspaper. He was frustrated that they had run stories about Cantwell so prominently.

Ferrin has lived in Keene for almost two decades. Stories like this, he said, cause people to misunderstand the city’s true character. Instead of being known for white supremacy or the riots that broke out at a Pumpkin Festival a couple years ago, Keene should really be known for “the better part of us, who we are,” he said.

That feeling, that Cantwell doesn’t represent Keene, is common in town.

“Obviously it’s not publicity any community wants,” said City Councilor Randy Filiault. “To say we were stunned and not happy is an understatement, but I think these types of issues sometimes bring a community even tighter.”

Keene is a college town, and students will be returning in full force to campus over the next week or so. Dottie Morris, associate vice president for institutional diversity and equity at Keene State, said she’s heard from both liberal and conservative students in the wake of events in Charlottesville.

There’s concern that political dialogue around campus could become polarized and even violent, she said, “because that’s kind of the model we’ve seen.”

Dottie Morris with Keene State College
Credit Britta Greene / NHPR

She’s heard people talking about Charlottesville all over town, in local grocery stores and coffee shops. And, she said, as an African-American woman, she’s even had strangers approach her, offering an apology or message of support.

Some residents quickly organized a demonstration last weekend on Keene’s Central Square, a popular spot for protests. But Rev. Elsa Worth of St. James Church in town noticed something different with this gathering.

“Usually the people who go around the square will beep when they agree with you and put their thumbs up. The same was true this past Sunday,” she said, “but what was new this time was the people who didn’t agree were really hostile. There was a lot of giving the finger, a lot of swearing, a lot of chanting Donald Trump’s name.”

She’s helping to organize another gathering, a candlelight vigil to celebrate love, not to take a political stance.

“There are people in pain right now, no matter what their political orientation is,” she said. “Everything seems so different, so fast -- coming at us like freight trains -- and people really don’t know how to make sense of it.”

The vigil is scheduled for August 27. In the meantime, it’s unclear if Cantwell will return to town.

Reached earlier this week in Virginia, he said he's concerned for his safety and property.

"I don't want people to know where my house is and slash my tires because they're a bunch of criminal degenerates or whatever," he told NHPR.

The Boston Globe reports there are two felony warrants out for Cantwell’s arrest in Virginia in connection with his activity in Charlottesville last weekend. Ian Freeman, a Keene resident who knows Cantwell, said Cantwell plans to turn himself in down south early next week.