Grant County, you stole the show. When Aryan Nations leader Paul Mullet strolled into the Eagle office two weeks ago, he likely expected the spotlight to remain firmly on him and his plan to move the white supremacist group to John Day.
However, when all those TV news crews and newspaper reporters rolled into town last week, there was not a neo-Nazi in sight. Instead, the star of this show was the resilient, outspoken and independent-minded community of Grant County.
No doubt about it, the community showed solidarity and pride. Residents packed the two meetings the Eagle hosted in Canyon City, and the rallies organized by local residents lined the main drag of John Day with flags, placards and signs supporting rights for "one race - the human race."
The response - swift, vocal, positive and lawful - sent a clear signal about the people who live here and the culture they hold dear.
In an odd sense, Mullet's foray into Grant County provided an unintended side benefit - an opportunity for Grant County to reconsider its values and its image. A recent editorial in The Oregonian described the county as one of the most misunderstood places in Oregon, and that's probably true. We have an economy that defies description in 50 words or less, and a complex socio-political background marked by moments of eccentricity ... but let's put the U.N.-free zone aside for now.
Instead let's focus on the positives we're finding in the community's response to the prospect of a hate group taking over Grant County for its "white homeland."
The rallies in downtown John Day were an example - not angry protests but celebrations of who we are. The people who took the microphone in the community meetings, with TV cameras rolling, showed courage not common in some communities that face similar threats. And the immediate distribution of lime-green ribbons by a brand-new human rights coalition sent a clear message in the face of hate.
Tony Stewart, one of our Idaho experts at last week's meetings, noted that the community will always have disagreements on some things, "and that's OK - but you are not divided on this beautiful place ... it doesn't belong to people who peddle hate.
Regardless of what happens in the future, keep that unity ... send that message."
This has been a signature moment for the community, and it's not insignificant that folks from across the state, even the nation, were watching. They read about Grant County in Boston and Birmingham; they saw John Day online in Europe and New Zealand, and they cheered for human rights and our battle in small towns across the western United States. That scrutiny probably won't end right away, and that's good. We can use the spotlight to show the world that this is a lawful, caring and inclusive community.
Remember, neo-Nazis don't like bit parts. Faced with the Paul Mullets of the world, Grant County's main challenge is to continue to write its own script and be the star of its own show.