Director of Southern Poverty Law Center addresses hate crimes in the United States as part of the Symposium on Polarization at UMass Amherst

--by Isha Mahajan

On 5th February 2019, a diverse audience from the UMass community gathered at the Campus Center Auditorium to hear Lecia Brooks, Outreach Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, address hate and extremism in the United States.

She started her talk by calling hate as a “constant act” that has been prevalent in the United States for a long time. Throughout her talk, however, she focussed issues that were more recent. This gave the audience a sense of how the issue in the country has perceived and tolerated hate. She moved on to introduce four examples of hate crimes that took place within the span of 10 days in the United States.

These examples included a fifty-one-year-old man executing a couple of African American people at a local grocery store in Kentucky, a 56-year-old man accused of sending 13 pipe bombs to critics of President Trump, a 46-year-old man invading the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg killing 11 people and a 40 year old  teacher who went out and shot two women at a yoga class.

Brooks said, “I’d understand that you may not remember one or the other of these incidents because they’re all horrific acts but I want you to remember that these things happen.”

She moved on to provide a few more examples of hate crimes related to anti-semitism, anti-sharia law, and refugee resettlement. She suggested that the legislators in the US are making anti-sharia laws even when Sharia is not as prominent in the culture. According to Brooks, this is done to trigger the audience and create a false perception about Sharia in the country. Brooks suggested that from 2012 to the present, there have been about 800 incidents of anti-Muslim hate in the country. “It continues to grow”, she said.

Other than this, she threw light on the “old-fashioned” form of racism that Americans have portrayed against the African Americans and provided a few examples like a 66-year-old man who was collecting recycling old cans and got stabbed by a 30-year-old man multiple times. When tried in court and pleaded guilty, he was completely fine with it.

Brooks believed that this emboldenment for people committing hate crimes has been connected to the 2016 presidential campaign. She reminded the audience that president Trump started his tenure by dehumanizing Mexicans and she believes that this campaign rhetoric is responsible for the increase in hate and extremist activities in the country today.

Brooks encouraged the audience to communicate with dignity and respect by emphasising that

“It’s not hard to do right. To be right.”

Brooks suggested that the existence of groups like White Nationalists creates a narrative that Jews are responsible for manipulating the system and this misconception leads to the rise of feelings of anti-semitism. In addition to this, the White Nationalists play a crucial role in affecting the environment on college campuses. Their beliefs and actions often act as a trigger to the students which loops them into believing something that is not necessarily right. Groups like the Patriot’s Front and Antifa also target a large audience on College Campuses and Brooks encourages the audience to not get affected by these groups. In addition to this, the existence of White Student Unions is a way of making “inroads” into the college campus environments. Students, as well as Professors, are targeted by these groups in college environments which leads to creating a hostile climate in colleges. Brooks highlighted that hate crimes are responsible for more deaths in the United States than any extremist group in the country is.

After describing the condition of hate and tolerance in the US, Brooks said,” It’s you and I who have the power to change that. It’s going to be us.”  She concluded her talk by encouraging the audience to communicate with respect and dignity, and build a community that creates space and tolerance for the diversity the country has to offer.

  • Lecia Brooks