Monday 10 December 2018

Uncovered: Special report on hate crimes in Trump's America to reveal a divided country and expanding white nationalism

Hate crime against Muslims, non-whites and gay people is vastly underreported in modern America for reasons including fear of authorities and lack of usable evidence. Catherine Devine reports on her seven-month US research project into a world of polarised views and expanding white nationalism

Choked: Sonya King was attacked while delivering food in Atlanta. Photo by Megan Ross/News21
Choked: Sonya King was attacked while delivering food in Atlanta. Photo by Megan Ross/News21
Flashpoint: a white supremacist militia member stands in front of counter-protesting clergy during a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year
Ignorance: Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition in New York, says many Americans believe he is a Muslim. Picture by Ashley Mackey/News21
Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer died during the counter protests at the rally. Picture by Kianna Gardner/News21

Sonya King, a black Muslim woman was delivering food in Atlanta when her first customer of the day, Rick Painter (54), grabbed her head covering, pulled her inside his home and began to choke her with it.

"That was some real hateful stuff," King said. "Every time I told that man, 'I got children,' he pulled harder."

Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh doctor living in New York City, was walking on a September evening when more than 20 men confronted him. The men shouted anti-Muslim slurs, calling him a 'terrorist' and 'Osama Bin Laden' as he was badly beaten outside his home.

It was the third time he'd been physically attacked since 9/11. Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition in New York says that 'Muslim' has become a bad word in the US and their community has become caught in the crossfire.

Flashpoint: a white supremacist militia member stands in front of counter-protesting clergy during a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year
Flashpoint: a white supremacist militia member stands in front of counter-protesting clergy during a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year

"It has become wrong to associate with a particular religious tradition," he says. "A lot of this hate is rooted in ignorance because people are assuming that I'm Muslim when I'm not, just because of their sort of racial understanding of who I am based on my appearance."

In Virginia, Geoffrey Preudhomme, a university student, spent an hour cowering behind his bedroom door, while his roommate repeatedly shouted the n-word, banged on his door and threatened to slit his throat. He said people wouldn't have believed him if he hadn't filmed the incident.

"In today's America, you have to be ready to film and document it, it's not just with brutality, but in order to change the system we have to expose all versions of racism," Preudhomme said. "I was threatened for the first time in my life in a place where I live, where you are supposed to feel the safest."

These are just some examples of hate crimes that I discovered while researching the topic in the US for the past year.

However, my analysis of the federal National Crime Victimisation Survey, which interviews tens of thousands of Americans annually, showed that hate crimes in the US are vastly underreported by victims. My research showed that more than 2.4 million crimes, whose victims suspect were motivated by hate, were committed across the United States between 2012 and 2016. In the same five-year period, the FBI counted only 30,000 hate crimes reported to them by local police. Only 12pc of US police departments reported any hate crimes at all to the FBI.

Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice, said the victimisation survey data is important in determining victims' perceptions of hate crimes at a time of cultural and political upheaval in the United States.

Ignorance: Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition in New York, says many Americans believe he is a Muslim. Picture by Ashley Mackey/News21
Ignorance: Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition in New York, says many Americans believe he is a Muslim. Picture by Ashley Mackey/News21

"Groups such as black Americans and the LGBTQ community have historically and consistently been targeted by hate crimes.

However, external events and politics can change attitudes towards certain groups," McDevitt said. "Whenever controversial things happen, it empowers the haters to go ahead and act out because they believe that people share their bias."

The Trump Effect

Victims, hate groups, advocates and officials across the US said that the cultural and political divisiveness in America today has emboldened more people to express intolerance towards minorities and that the targets often keep silent.

Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Centre at the Anti-Defamation League, said hate often increases during elections, and this last presidential election cycle pushed more people to reveal their intolerance.

"Hate crimes have been pretty consistent for the past 10 years, but during times of elections or political events, things can be very polarising," Lieberman said. "There is no doubt that the 2016 election was not a good example of comity and civility, and promoting diversity and respect for others."

Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer died during the counter protests at the rally. Picture by Kianna Gardner/News21
Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer died during the counter protests at the rally. Picture by Kianna Gardner/News21

Jack McDevitt echoed this sentiment: "Anytime you demonise a group, it sends a message to the people that might act violently that this is a group that you can target and people won't care," he says.

"Hate crime offenders feel that everyone else shares their bias tendencies, but they're too afraid to act. They feel like heroes because they're going to act out.

"Some members of minority groups feel vulnerable and unwelcome in America. Between the hateful rhetoric and law enforcement reaction and some police-induced violence, they are feeling under siege in ways they haven't before."

Since President Trump's election, Latinos and immigrants in the US said they have experienced a new wave of hate-related incidents.

While my research found that Latinos and immigrants don't report hate crimes because of the threat of deportation, targeting does appears to be on the rise.

"We're told not to draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves. Even if you get robbed or exploited or you're in danger, you just don't want that unnecessary attention," said Pricila Garcia (20), of Cleburne, Texas, the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

LGBTQ people also are hesitant to report hate crimes because of a chronic distrust between the community and the police. Their cases usually aren't prosecuted as hate crimes when they are reported, victims said.

Brandon Ballone, a drag performer, was a victim of a violent crime during a night out in New York in 2016. The 27-year-old was wearing a T-shirt advertising his drag-queen personality when a group of teenagers beat him with a glass bottle, leaving him with a severed tendon in his hand, a torn ear and damaged jaw.

Ballone said shock and his impulse to get to safety meant he couldn't recall whether his attackers used homophobic slurs or called him names. As a result, police didn't investigate his case as a hate crime.

"Anybody who attacks someone in that kind of way, it seems to me that there is a lot of hate there," Ballone said. "But apparently, a hate crime, to (the police), means I would have had to hear them say the word 'f****t'."

My research, which included a 7,000-mile road trip around the country to assess the state of hate in America, showed that many victims of hate crimes are reluctant to report them to the police because they don't have any evidence to support their claims.

Two-thirds of the victimisation survey respondents who suspected they were targeted because of hate were unable to cite tangible evidence, such as hate speech, that could be used by law enforcement. Authorities could confirm only 2.5pc of the reported crimes were motivated by hate.

"It's important to look at the number of people who suspect they were a victim of a hate crime and not just the FBI data. People's perception is their reality," said attorney Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general of the US Department of Justice's civil rights division. "A lot of these law enforcement agencies don't believe that they have a problem with hate crimes. If they don't think they have a problem, they won't deal with it well."

Hate crime laws are not consistent across the US. Forty-five states have statutes criminalising various types of bias-motivated violence or intimidation. Hate crime laws in 14 of those states do not include either sexual orientation or gender identity. Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Wyoming have no hate crime laws at all.

There also has been an increase in hate crimes and recruitment by white supremacist groups on college campuses. According to data collected from 6,506 higher-education institutions by the US Department of Education, the number of reported campus hate incidents, including harassment and vandalism, increased from 74 in 2006 to 1,300 in 2016.

The rise of digital hate

Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group, is actively recruiting on college campuses. Its leaders said they see colleges as the "last battleground," where white people are taught to feel racial guilt and led to believe that multiculturalism is a positive thing.

The organisation distributes recruitment flyers, stickers and posters on college campuses, drawing the attention of local and national news media. That extends the group's presence beyond the reach of its own social media channels.

"Generally, the idea is that people see the flyer and then they look us up online - we don't have links on the actual flyer, but people use Google and find us that way," said Patrick Casey, executive director of Identity Evropa.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Centre's Intelligence Project, said the youthful new right is a "millennial male phenomenon" that is changing the climate of hate in the US. The violent misogyny at the core of the alt-right's foundations distinguishes it from hate groups of the past, she said, noting the "female-bashing that is at the core of the internet," where young males are becoming radicalised.

Hate groups have increasingly used social media to recruit members and target victims, giving rise to a new phenomenon of internet hate. Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter offer billions of people unparalleled access to the rest of the world.

"What social media does, is it allows people to find each other and establish digital communities and relationships," said Benjamin Lee, senior research associate for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats at Lancaster University in England. "That's not to say that extreme sentiment is growing or not, but it is a lot more visible."

That visibility reached global attention at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists - protesting plans to remove a Confederate statue - chanted such slogans as "White lives matter" and "Jews will not replace us" at a rally at the University of Virginia. The protests ended in violent clashes with counter-protesters.

"Charlottesville illustrated the fact that people can still come together and do things in a way that is incredibly public and feel that there is no punishment for it," McDevitt said.

One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed after James Alex Fields Jr of Ohio rammed his car into a group of demonstrators.

"People were screaming, you could hear the sounds of thud, thud, thud, but nobody knew what it (the car) was," said Heyer's mother Susan Bro. "And I have a picture that was taken a split second (earlier) by a photographer with Heather looking right at the guy before he hits her."

Jason Kessler, organiser of the Charlottesville rally, said he feels white people are not given fair treatment in the United States.

"We are fast becoming a minority in the country we founded, and we're still not able to have the same rights of assembly and organisation that other groups are," he said.

Randy Gamble, who works with the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, Tennessee, an organisation that advocates for racial-justice healing, said a lot of tensions came to the forefront in Charlottesville, but he remains hopeful for the future.

"We're dealing with a lot of things from the past that came to the surface," he said. "People don't just forget about what happened. Violence happened and that doesn't go away. We don't want to repeat that history all over again. We want to change the tapestry of this country in a way that frees people from the wounds."

Hate in America, a 15-part investigation examining intolerance, racism and hate crimes, is the 2018 project of the Carnegie-Knight News21 programme, a national multimedia reporting project produced by the nation's top journalism students and graduates and based at Arizona State University.

American hate crime in numbers

74

hate crimes reported on college campuses in 2006.

1,300

hate crimes reported on college campuses in 2016.

30,000

hate crimes reported to the FBI from 2012-2016.

7,175

hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2017.

12%

The proportion of US police forces that reported any instance of hate crime to the FBI 2012-2016.

2.4m

crimes committed between 2012-2016 whose victims believe were motivated by hate.

5

Number of US states —  Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Wyoming — with no hate crime laws at all.

14

Number of US states that hate crime laws do not include either sexual orientation or gender identity.

2016

The year that Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group which is actively recruiting on college campuses, was formed.

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