A Unitarian Universalist minister dressed as a pink and purple unicorn was arrested on November 9 along with four others for protesting the ongoing presence of white supremacists at a farmers’ market in Bloomington, Indiana, in a story that drew national media attention from Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
The Rev. Forrest Gilmore, affiliated community minister at the UU Church of Bloomington, is part of a group called the Purple Shirt Brigade. Since the summer, they and other antiracist activists have been urging people to boycott Schooner Creek Farm, a produce booth run by Sarah Dye and her husband Douglas Mackey. Dye and Mackey describe themselves as “Identitarians” and have connections to the American Identity Movement (AIM), one of the largest alt-right groups in the white supremacy movement, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Formerly known as Identity Evropa, AIM renamed itself following Identity Evropa’s participation in the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, where a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer.
“We’re community members, concerned about white supremacists in the market, who have rallied together to do this work,” Gilmore told UU World. “It was intolerable for me to let this be normalized in our community. It had to be responded to and rejected in some way.”
Since the summer, a dozen to two dozen protesters have engaged in nonviolent protests at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market each week and calling for the boycott, Gilmore says. In response, members of the right-wing militia group Three Percenters, some of them armed with guns, showed up at the market in July to support Dye. Patrick Casey, former leader of Identity Evropa and the person who orchestrated its renaming, also showed up to support Dye and had his picture taken in front of her booth, says Gilmore, adding, “It’s just so blatant.” In response to the escalating situation, the city closed down the market for two weeks in August.
The protesters object to the city’s rules for protests, which forbid them from carrying signs and restrict them to certain parts of the market, although people can carry firearms, which some of Dye’s supporters do.
In July, a protester was arrested for holding a sign in front of the Schooner Creek Farm booth. After signs were banned, the protesters showed up in purple T-shirts with a Cornel West quote on the front, “Justice Is What Love Looks Like in Public.” Inspired by other antiracist protests around the country “who use costumes and other creative things to mock white supremacy,” says Gilmore, the Purple Shirt Brigade decided to wear whimsical purple costumes on November 9. In addition to Gilmore’s inflatable unicorn costume, there was also a purple octopus, a Viking, and a wizard.
Gilmore’s arrest was videotaped and posted on the Purple Shirt Brigade’s Facebook page. “Neo-Nazis in the market, that’s not normal, start wearing purple with us now,” the group sang as police placed Gilmore and others under arrest. They were arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct for protesting outside a zone the city designated for protests. The protesters have not yet been charged, says Gilmore, who was the only Unitarian Universalist arrested, although other UUs were protesting that day.
“They have a First Amendment right to be there, and we have a First Amendment right to protest them, that’s the core of our position and why we’ve been pushing the rules and ultimately getting arrested,” Gilmore says.
Attendance numbers at the market have dropped “a lot” since the protests began, from an average of about 10,000 to about 3,000, says Yaël Ksander, the city’s communications director. While rainy weather may be another factor, “certainly there’s been a lot of anxiety in the market, which may have contributed.”
Gilmore says that the community is “very torn” about the controversy. “We’re dealing with overt racism and white supremacy through Schooner Creek Farm, but the act of engaging in this process has revealed covert racism among moderates and progressives, who generally don’t think of themselves as racist,” Gilmore says.
“I think some in the community are very interested in blaming the protesters, which is one reason we wanted to incorporate humor into our protests” by wearing colorful costumes, he adds. “But I actually believe the [attendance] numbers wouldn’t return to anywhere near normal even if the protesters went away. I think many, many [shoppers] are staying away because of the white supremacists.”
Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, a professor of history and gender studies at Indiana University, says that Gilmore and other antiracist activists are doing what white allies should do when people of color are under attack.
“Guilt is pointless, allies are priceless,” says Myers, who noted that she and other faculty of color were targeted three years ago by Identity Evropa, which claimed responsibility for racist flyers that were placed around the university campus on Super Bowl Sunday 2017. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m not a racist,’” says Myers, herself a member of the Purple Shirt Brigade. “No, what are you doing to be an antiracist, what actions are you engaged in on a daily basis? Because your silence is speaking volumes about where you really stand.”
“Once you become aware of [racism], you have a choice to make: you can sit and do nothing and then you’re complicit, or you can choose to stand up against it,” she says. “Will you be an ally or will you not?”
The Purple Shirt Brigade, Black Lives Matter, and an antiracist group called No Space for Hate have been pressing the city since May to remove itself from the market and turn it over to the vendors, who could then decide whether the controversial vendor should stay, she says. Most farmers’ markets in Indiana are privately operated vendor cooperatives, she adds.
Participating each week in the protests has “been difficult and challenging, and there has been lots of conflict over it, and I and many others have wanted to quit a lot,” says Gilmore. “But one thing that happens a lot, and people of color know this all too well, is that when things get tough, white people head toward the door and abandon them. So it is really important to me, despite the difficulty and awfulness, to stick it out and push through.”