Park gathering

Sunday, March 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:36 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Rosie Robinson came home from Jefferson Middle School earlier this week a bit uneasy by what she’d heard from teachers and classmates about the neo-Nazi march planned for downtown on Saturday. Her mother, Aerial Robinson, said this posed a challenge: How to explain hate and intolerance to an 11-year-old.

They sat down and talked, and in the end Aerial Robinson told her daughter to worry less about changing the Nazis and more about accepting the differences of people in her own life.

She compared trying to change a Nazi to trying to teach a pig to read. “It frustrates you and annoys the pig,” Robinson said.

Robinson and her daughter came to Douglass Park on Saturday for Spark in the Park, an event held in response to a march by about 20 members of the National Socialist Movement, a white supremacist group.

An estimated 3,000 people attended the event, said Bill Thompson, a recreation specialist for the city of Columbia.

Rosie was looking forward to Spark in the Park, her mother said, but wanted to avoid downtown on the way there.

“Now that she is here, she is fine,” Robinson said with a smile. She brought Rosie to the park to show her there are positive ways to react to the march.

Volunteers passed out T-shirts and buttons reading “Not in Our Town” to remind people that the event had a purpose.

Thompson said the difference between what happened downtown and what happened at the park was like night and day.

“This shows me that this town is growing up,” Thompson said.

Bill Clark, a volunteer grilling free hot dogs for the crowd, said he served a few thousand during the course of the day. Free hamburgers were also on the menu, and volunteers had to make runs for additional buns. The demand for plates and condiments outstripped the supply.

The Columbia Human Rights Commission, Centro Latino and an environmental biology program at MU that provides scholarships to minority students were among about eight booths that were set up at the event. Activities for children included coloring, puppet making, games and an inflatable bounce house.

Candi Galen, a professor of biological science at MU, had a booth that invited children to plant a small pot of different colored marigolds.

“Diversity is important in the garden just like it is important in school and the community,” Galen said.

Galen said she felt it was important for her to participate in the event because it affects the community and her neighbors, and “diversity makes our community beautiful.”

Fun City Youth Academy, a program for children that meets on weekends at the J.W. “Blind” Boone Center, moved its weekend activities to Douglass Park. Amy Hoffman, who works with the group, said for her it was a “no brainer” to relocate for the weekend.

“We try to stress to the kids tolerance and peace,” she said. “This reinforces that more people in the community take a stand for those same characteristics.”

Fun City had a booth set up with a ring toss and beanbag tick-tack-toe. Winners were able to select a toy prize from a large bin.

At the Center Project booth, an organization raising funds to establish a center for people of various sexual orientations, Jeadawn Cropp colored with her 2-year-old son, Garrett Murray Jr. People were invited to describe their feelings about the march and park event through coloring. When finished, the triangle-shaped pieces of paper were hung from a nearby tree.

Cropp decided to come to the park to show her children a positive environment.

“I try to keep them away from things that are negative and bring them to things that are positive,” Cropp said.

She hoped the event would teach her son and 7-year-old daughter to “accept everybody, no matter what color, shape or race.”

Police Chief Randy Boehm, Mayor Darwin Hindman and City Manager Bill Watkins attended the event and talked with residents. First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton danced with children before the hip-hop dance show.

Lorenzo Lawson of the Youth Empowerment Zone enjoyed the energy of the day.

“The good that’s coming out of this is that we know we can come together,” he said. “We’ve got to do this sort of stuff regularly.”

Police Capt. Tom Dresner, who spent most of the day staffing the march, said the event in the park was a great alternative to the “hate” displayed by the marchers downtown.

“It’s just a great day to be out and celebrate diversity, and it looks like all the groups are represented,” Dresner said. “This is a wonderful city, and there’s an incredible feeling of togetherness.”

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