BERLIN - In pouring rain Thursday night, about 15 people gathered outside Board of Education offices for a rally against hate, sparked by the negative Facebook posts of Steven Baleshiski, the Republican challenger to Democratic House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz in the 30th state House District.
“We need to stop hating. We need to start listening. Hatred stems from fear,” said resident Barbara Coughlin.
She started by stating that the nation’s founding fathers established the country based on ideals including justice and domestic tranquility, but that many of today’s Americans have slipped away from those ideals.
“These are scary times, and there are a lot of things to fear. We need to listen,” she added, before singing “We Shall Overcome” with the attendees, a song she identified with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Facebook posts made by Baleshiski said a student survivor of the Parkland school shooting in Florida could “burn in hell.” Another post said Muslims embrace “worshipping the devil.” In another, he identified himself as a white male while calling African-American U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters “dumb.”
Baleshiski told The Herald that he didn’t like people who use tragedies to take away rights from Americans, that he is a devout Christian and doesn’t want to be led astray, and that he wanted to dispel the notion that all supporters of President Donald Trump are racist.
Minutes before the rally’s start, Rachel Rochette, a former mayor and town councilor, shared with The Herald what she said were Twitter tweets by Baleshiski of a similar nature to the Facebook posts, made as recently as earlier this month.
Standing outside the school board offices because the Board of Education, Town Council and Board of Finance were scheduled to meet there at 7 p.m., the rally participants held signs reading “Say it loud, say it clear, Steven is not welcome here” and “No bigots in Berlin.”
Adults need to set an example for children and call out hate, said Rochette at the rally. Disagreement isn’t a bad thing, she added, but it becomes a problem when the words turn ugly.
“We need to stop it,” said Town Councilor Karen Pagliaro of hate speech. Things like race, religion and sexual preference shouldn’t matter, she added.
“I’ve made mistakes,” admitted Frederick Morley Jr., the organizer of the rally. But people have to learn from mistakes and should direct the energy they use to hate toward positive things and bring the community together, he said.
He also called on elected officials to condemn hatred.
Rally participants went into the meeting afterward and held up their signs.
Brian Callahan, Baleshiski’s campaign manager, did not return a request for comment after the rally.