Charlottesville: America’s fork in the road

August 15, 2017

Chaos theorists talk about bifurcation points in our human history when everything changes. The invention of agriculture around 9,500 BCE that allowed nomadic people to  (literally) put down roots and build civilizations. The invention of the wheel around 3,200 B.C.E. that allowed us to travel and trade with other civilizations. The invention of the modern computer around 1950 C.E. that allowed us to process masses of information in a non-linear way.

The carnage in Charlottesville, Virginia feels like a bifurcation point. If not for the world, then for America. Are we going to descend into a fascist state or are we going to wrestle the reins of our democracy away from torch-carrying “proud boys” and their enabler-in-chief?

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When I began my research on white supremacist extremists thirty years-ago, they were purely a fringe phenomenon. There has been some serious actors, like The Order, that funneled millions of dollars from violent heists to folks like David Duke and the Aryan Nations, in hopes of funding a race war. My guys were mostly 17-year-old knuckle-heads who were angry that their parents had been laid off from the local textile mill and the only source of an explanation was the White Aryan Resistance. For years, my work was focused the alienated few who took their righteous anger in the wrong direction. It was always fascinating and good fodder for cable crime programs but never seemed to have much value in the analysis of mainstream culture (as much as I tried to link the two worlds). Nazis were an anachronism. A comic footnote in our progressive history.

That’s until Donald Trump decided he wanted to be president.

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The images of Charlottesville, with hordes of white men carrying torches, chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” was shocking enough. That they were defending a statue of the traitor Robert E. Lee was beside the point. But then we saw the video of one of those neo-nazis, James Fields Jr., driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and seriously injuring many others. Even though this was a tactic utilized by ISIS around the globe, President Trump refused to call it an act of terrorism. In fact he refused to call it much of anything, bemoaning that there was violence on “many sides.” Two days later he retweeted a post asking why the media had covered this but not the “9 deaths” in Chicago that weekend. Because, you know, black people.

Unravelling the Alt-Right knot

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Those on the racist right get fairly regular public make-overs. In the late 1980s, Louisiana Grand Dragon David Duke took off his Klan robe and put on a Brooks Brothers  suit (and got a nose job) and ran for president of the United States (as a Republican). He didn’t win, but he did get elected to the Louisiana state legislature for a term. White supremacists have become white separatists and then white nationalists. It’s all the same racist ideology. I was doing live commentary for local news station during a large alt-right rally on August 6. One of the attendees said he was a “western supremacist.”

My first thought was, “Well, west coast is the best coast. So am I!” But then I realized he meant western civilization supremacist. He was a white supremacist.

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There’s a lot of people who are attracted to the alt-right message who are not white supremacists. Local alt-right organizer Joey Gibson is not even white. He just loves Donald Trump. A lot. He seemed to be caught off-guard by all the Nazis that kept showing up at his “free speech” rallies and is now fashioning himself as a “moderate Libertarian.” But the Nazis still show up whenever he holds a rally. They want to complain about immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter, and feminists and anything else that bugs white men that day.

For the last ten years the alt-right has been primarily an internet phenomenon. Those who felt the most conservative Republican was not conservative enough. They found a safe space on the web, including on Breitbart,  4Chan, Reddit, and the DailyStormer.com. They’ve been able to find a place to talk about the “liberal (Jewish) media,” how much they hate the women on The View, the threat of “Sharia Law,” and Trump’s favorite drumbeat, that President Obama was a Muslim, not born in America. Going to a Klan rally has its risks, but sitting in front of your laptop, kvetching about Beyoncé all day is easy peasy. (You know she hates white people, right?)

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The campaign of Donald Trump, with all its white supremacist dog whistles, brought these trolls out into the sunlight. Now they’re in the streets ready to preserve the macho tradition of the white men who “built this nation” by beating up a few “communists.” (Last season, they were all “anarchists.”) They’ll go to liberal bastions, Berkeley, California or Portland, Oregon, or the University of Virginia because they know they’ll generate a strong response. And if some anti-fascist kid punches one of them in the face, they can further their wimpy cause that white men are the “victims” of the multi-cultural shift in America. Boo hoo, poor oppressed white men.

There are legitimate social issues that people have a right debate: immigration, trade policies, when religious freedoms bump up against existing laws, free speech. On the Glamor Shot surface, that’s all these alt right blokes are doing. It’s just a public conversation. But you barely have to scratch the surface to see what the truth behind this phenomenon is. Drop into AltRight.com’s editor Richard Spencer’s Twitter feed on any random day. Or pretty much every thread on Reddit’s “alternative_right” page or the incredibly sexist “Politically Incorrect” forum on 4Chan. How did these dorks become part of our mainstream political discourse?

Make America White Again

There are two very real threats from the alt right. And I mean very real.

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The first has to do with our alt-right president, who rode to power by championing the issues of these quasi-fascists, including bringing some of them into his White House men’s club. (You think Steve Bannon is a right-wing nut-job, spend some time with Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant.)

The rhetoric of the alt-right is that America is being ripped away from white men by all these enemy forces; Muslims, Jews, feminists, homosexuals, liberals, Mexicans, Chinese steel, and Korean smartphones. (It’s so much easier to just say “communists.”)  The Charlottesville marchers chanted, “You will not replace us!” After all, it’s good to be the king of the hill.

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The problem is, they are sort of right. White males are a shrinking percentage of our nation of immigrants. The U.S. Census Bureau has stated that by the year 2050, the proportion of Americans who are non-white will be be greater than the proportion that is white. If you believe this is a “white man’s country,” there’s reason to panic, because your vision is fading away. While most of us not only accept the demographic shift, we celebrate the added diversity, these guys want to go back in time. Push back against the hordes and make America great again. That’s why they voted for Donald Trump. What looks like an attempt to even the playing field to the rest of us, looks like oppression to them. They needed a “strong leader” who will stop this “political correctness.” Merry Christmas, motherfuckers!

Obviously they are going to lose. They can have all the tikki torch marches they want, but they can’t stop the browning of America. There is not a single family fleeing the violence of El Salvador who is saying, “We can’t go to America. They have racist Twitter trolls!” BUT, with friends in high places, the alt boys can hope Trump and his alt-right handlers can dismantle democracy just enough, and gerrymander a few more swing-state districts, that America starts to look like the country after the Klan helped push through the Immigration Act of 1924. It’s not an impossible vision. Neither is A Handmaid’s Tale.

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The McVeigh Threat

The other is what happens when the alt-right coup plan fades. There is a direct parallel  with the militia movement of the 1990s. Like the alt right, people (men) were attracted to the militia movement for a number of reasons, including gun rights, land use issues, and a general hatred of paying taxes. A bit further down it became a hatred of the federal government who had control of these issues. The next step on the flow chart was the arrival of the conspiracy theories. Republicans and Democrats and the whole ball of wax were controlled by the Freemasons or Illuminati. (The left tends to go for Reptilian aliens or the Koch Brothers.) A bit further down that conspiracy becomes anti-Semitic. America was controlled by a Zionist occupation government. (ZOG!)

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At that bottom of that dark funnel were the revolutionaries who believed a second American Revolution was needed to replenish the nation and rid the country of its Zionist masters. This was Timothy McVeigh’s intention when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children in a daycare facility. The alt right has its own McVeighs who believe the exact same thing. Jeremy Christian, the Portland Max train murderer idolized McVeigh as a true hero. At his arraignment, Christian shouted, “You may call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!” Just yesterday, the FBI thwarted a plot by an alt right follower named Jerry Varnell to explode  a van in Oklahoma City to jump start McVeigh’s race war.

The more people you bring in at the top of this funnel, the more revolutionaries you end up with at the bottom. The question is, what will be the body count from these McVeighs as they realize that Trump isn’t going to deliver 1924 America to them on a silver platter? Will they force their race war on us? And if so, can I go ahead and enlist with the Black Panthers?

Why seekers flock to Nazis and Trump

People want to make sense of a confusing, chaotic world. The pace of change is accelerating. The old order is unrecognizable. Transgender bathrooms, bilingual signs at Home Depot, and a new iPhone when you haven’t even gotten the old one yet. It’s dizzying. Some one thinks your racist because you said, “All lives matter,” and you didn’t realize you were supposed to ask when pronouns people prefer. Wasn’t “queer” a bad word? People of color not colored people. I get it. It’s a lot for a privileged person to keep up with.

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Both Trump and the Nazis speak to this sense of normlessness, what sociologists call anomie. People need a frame to put all these images in and Trump and the Nazis do it. It’s a simplistic worldview of good versus evil and the only reason it’s confused is because of the fake or Jewish media. But don’t worry, Trump and the Nazis will explain it for you. It’s all a big conspiracy meant to deprive the average white (male) person from his natural position in the status quo. As Trump opined today, what are they going to do next, take down statues of George Washington? He owned slaves! (I’m guessing Trump doesn’t actually that Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general who was defeated by the United States.)

Once you have the analysis provided, the second part of the appeal is the action plan. What are you going to do about it? The white nationalists in Charlottesville clearly stated they wanted to take their country back. From who? Trump says he wants to make America great again. When was that? These are not even thinly veiled calls to return America to the days before civil rights movement upset the straight white male apple cart.

Step one: Provide the analysis. Step two: Provide the action plan. Step three: Unleash the hounds.

Life in Alt Right America

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Saturday afternoon I was hosting a hate crime forum in downtown Portland, co-sponsored by the Department of Justice. Peoples’ phones started buzzing and attendees began to ask, “Have you heard what’s happening in Charlottesville?” Afterwards I was whisked off for a CNN interview where I was asked what I would say if I was Trump’s speech writer. Over the next 48 hours I did dozens of interviews about the alt right (including with Turkish TV). There were two things on my mind. Could this please wind down before I take my daughter to Disneyland for her third birthday? And how did this weird little fringe group I started studying thirty years ago become mainstream? (I woke up this morning to MSNBC giving their audience a primer on neo-nazi groups and symbols.)

We are at a crossroads in America. It is obvious that President Trump just does not get it. He does not get the real trauma cause by racism in America. He does not get real threat posed by domestic terrorists, like James Fields, Jr.. And he does not get that people trying to stop fascists are not somehow equally threatening as the fascists themselves. His only response to this horrific trend should be to purge all the alt right bozos from staff. He needs to admit that he made a mistake and that’s he’s instituting a course correction for the country.

But he won’t. He never admits mistakes. That takes an evolved person. He’s the mayor of Simpletown. The alt right loves him and so he loves the alt right (and it’s clear that Trump is afraid of his alt right handlers). They will go on a road of destruction together. The destruction of the core values of this country. The question is – will the rest of us go down it with them?

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Note: This isn’t the most cogent piece I’ve written. I tried to zip if off between TV and radio interviews, a Canadian film crew in my house, and Cozy jumping on my back over her excitement about meeting Minnie Mouse this week. Also, the sun is going to disappear. But you get it, I hope.

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Fascists Fall for Trump, their Nazi Dream Date

August 4, 2017

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The Metroplex was a beautiful abandoned building turned into a thriving punk rock club and the de facto Island of Misfit Toys in the 1980s. I saw shows there by the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks and a million others (including, oddly, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones). I did my first interview with a racist skinhead there 31 years ago this summer. There had been a skinhead brawl at the competing 688 Club that had sent the doorman to the hospital. You can hear the skinhead version of events in the Anti-Heroes’ song, “Disco Riot.”

I had first encountered skinheads when I was student in London in 1982. I hopped on a train in Victoria Station to my internship in a clinic out in suburban Thamesmead. There were three skinheads in the car and me. They were drawing swastikas and National Front logos on the wall. One looked at me and then scrawled, “Kill a mod.” I got off at the next stop. By 1986, racist skinheads were popping up all over America, including the Old Glory Skins in Atlanta. I was 22 and this kid, in boots and braces, was probably 18. I wanted to know what was going on.

“What do you guys really want?” I asked him as we sat on the curb of Marietta Street, the heat too unbearable inside the Metroplex.

“We just want a strong leader who will kick all the fucking mud races out of the county.”

I wonder where that kid is now. I bet he’s happy. He finally got his “strong leader.”

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Much has been written (including by me) about how Donald Trump has used white supremacist tactics, dog whistles, and code words to generate support from the extreme right and white supremacist counter-culture. Remember when he pretended not to know who David Duke was? When he was elected, white nationalist, oh, excuse me, “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer raced to Washington to exalt “Hail Trump!” with a stiff-armed salute.

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His campaign to take America back to 1950 (in an interview with CNN he said that was the “again” in his “Make America Great Again” slogan), has only gained momentum. His fascistic rule by tweet undermines the fabric our democracy, including his recent pronouncement that all transgendered people will be kicked out of the U.S. military. His unquestioning flock believe that accusations of racism are just a liberal (Jewish?) plot, spread by the fake (Jewish?) media.

Certainly the people I have been studying for over thirty years have been watching. I don’t go to Klan rallies anymore or bring beer to skinhead parties to get them to talk, but I still hang out with them in their virtual worlds and eavesdrop on their conversations in neo-Nazi discussion groups and the hang-outs in the darkest corners of the web (i.e., Reddit). And boy howdy, do racists love Trump.

The latests clarion call from their fake blonde führer is his plan to limit legal immigration to English-speaking only applicants. Everyone knows this is not about keeping German-only speaking immigrants out of the country. It’s about brown and black people, especially brown people from Latin America. It’s not even a veiled attempt at racism. It’s clear as a bell, and the radical right (and some of the Trump trolls who post on my Facebook page) are loving it. Just try to keep up with this thread on Stormfront, the leading discussion site for white supremacists: STORMFRONT

WhiteHistoryWrightBrosTrump’s “merit based” plan (you know, because the people who pick our food have no merit) would only offer visas to immigrants who have high-paying job offers and speak English better than our Drunk Uncle president. It would end the diversity that comes from the visa lottery and that was making America great long before Trump’s made in China MAGA dunce caps sat on the empty noggins of Bocephus and Betty Lou. It would also drastically restrict  the number of refugees allowed in the country, because, you know, screw that whole America is a “beacon of freedom” thing. If only we had more Nazi rocket scientists who needed sanctuary. The Statue of Liberty was a French (Jewish?) plot.

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These policies are surely the work of right-wing hate groups, like FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform), that have Steve Bannon’s blotchy Caucasian ear and the soul of “more than kinda” racist Stephen Miller. And they are catnip to white supremacists. You thought they went gaga over Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban and Attorney General Jeff Sessions praise of the 1924 “Whites Only” immigration act. (That’s the one that caused the 1920s KKK to close up shop because they got what they were marching for.) The Little Hitlers are going ape poo over Trump’s latest plan to make America white again. I know. I lurk in their world of stupidity. And we don’t even have to get into his silencing of the First Lady (First Ladies are to be seen and not heard), or the stomping on transgender rights (“No boot camp for you!”). Fascist forums have threads dedicated to both.  The immigration thing alone has them ginned up like frat boys on pledge night.

Yes, America has a president who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. But Trump won’t get his final solution. He’s clueless at how America works. The guy can’t even speak in complete sentences or keep his lies straight. The Republican congress has blocked him and the courts have blocked him and the diverse patchwork of the American populace will continue to block him. But there will be casualties along the way as the 2017 alt-right versions of those 1980s skinheads believe they’ve got their strong leader. That’s why Americans cannot be silent or still.

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A Time to Refrain from Fighting

14 July 2017

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Tuesday afternoon I had just completed one of our weekly civil rights bus tours of Portland. I’m a presenter for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon ride through our state’s tortured racial history. My part of the program is about hate crime that now links the 1988 bludgeoning death of an Ethiopian immigrant by racist skinheads to the brutal attack by an “alt-right” lunatic on a Portland Max train last May. The bus rolls from the street where Mulugeta Seraw was murdered to the Hollywood Max station where three heroes were stabbed for standing up to hate, two of them paying for it with their lives. I try to connect the dots and have yet to do so without choking back the tears.

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I end my part of the tour by talking about the difficult work of reaching out to the haters and leading them to the side of love. That that’s where the true justice is. I talk about an organization called Life After Hate, a group of “formers,” who used to be members of white supremacist groups and now do important anti-racism and de-radicalization work. I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration. (Gee, why would Trump want to stop the work of a group that drags people out of right-wing hate groups?) And I talk about the 16-year-old girl with the swastika tattoo who, in 1988, handed her skinhead boyfriend the bat used to bash Mulugeta Seraw’s skull in. She’s now one of my most cherished friends. She served her time, befriending an African-American girl she was locked up with, and now speaks powerfully about what sent her down the ugly road of hate.

Tuesday’s tour was for a group of fresh-faced graduate students at Lewis & Clark. Afterwards a young woman approached me and said, “I’m a radical feminist anarchist and I think these people should be attacked, physically attacked.” I tried to explain to her that that approach only pushes them farther into their little Nazi boxes, making them into the victims of another kind of hate. That it makes more sense to try to make a connection with them and bring them to our side. That I’ve been doing this work for almost thirty years and this is the only thing that actually works to reduce the hate and threats of violence. She was having none of it, harumphed, and stormed off.

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I’ve been reflecting on that interchange this week. One one hand, I don’t think she understands the concept of “radical feminism.” If you think the appropriate response to a social problem is more macho violence, then you are not a radical feminist. On the other hand, I get it. If someone had knocked the crap out of Jeremy Christian before May 26th, maybe he would have thought twice about opening his hate spewing mouth on a crowded train that afternoon.

And I was thinking about it last night. Andrea and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary at a great new jazz bar in Portland called The Jack London Revue. The Jim Beam was settling into my veins as the Mel Brown Quartet played. I looked at my wife in the dimly lit club and thought of how lucky I am to be her husband. We are a team on multiple fronts: parenting, home-maintaing, creative projects, financial struggles. We’re in this together. And we’re stronger when we come at life as a partners instead of rivals. There are fights, when somebody is convinced they are right. I would love it if she rinsed her plates and I’m sure she would love it if I stopped thinking farts were “funny.” She’s very Antifa on that one. (Anti-Fart)

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But there’s another way. I jokingly think of it as “feminist husbandry.” There’s a challenge when we are so committed to our position that there must be a “winner.” My charge is to just stop. Just stop. Lose the ego and remember we’re a team first. My job is to take care of my partner, not win an argument. We can find our common ground. I don’t always do it, though. It’s easy to let the anger win and just want to (like my “radical feminist anarchist” rider) attack. That’s why I’ve put little reminders up in our house. Signs that say,  “appreciate,” “acknowledge,” and “be loving” are taped up on walls. (It’s cheaper than getting them tattooed on my hands.) There is time in life to take a breath and remember what the mission is.

One of my favorite songs growing up was The Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics are actually from the Christian Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to fight, but also a time to refrain from fighting. Love wins out over hate. Ultimately, we are all on the same side. That includes the haters and those that hate the haters.

Please support Life After Hate here (click). Maybe someday I will form Life After Farting.

Living with hate in Portland

June 1, 2017

It’s been a long time since my city had such an emotional week. Maybe in November 1988 when three skinheads murdered an Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw, ripping the scab off the supposedly liberal wonderland of Portland, Oregon. It showed us the ugliness underneath that had been there since Oregon was founded as the nation’s only “whites only” state in 1859. Last Friday that wound was opened times three.

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A local “patriot activist” named Jeremy Christian had been bouncing around on the fringes of the alt right movement. He had been seen seig heiling at a “free speech” rally earlier in the spring and around town going on racist, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant rants. His Facebook page was all over the place, hoping Trump would be his new Hitler, idolizing the Oklahoma City Bomber, briefly defending Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, and, most recently, wanting to kill those who perform circumcisions. He was an equal opportunity hate machine. And as the world now knows, last Friday that hate became lethal.

I used to ride Portland’s Max train a lot when I was single. It was often a source of free entertainment and a bit of sociological research. It’s a busted circus train where the human zoo gets to mingle. It might be obnoxious teenagers trying to size up an elderly woman dressed like she just climbed down from the Russian steppe. Or maybe a suave hobo trying to make small talk with a tightly-pressed banker. It’s never the same and always seasoned with a dash of risk. At any stop the anti-Christ might step on board and take the train to hell.

That’s what happened Friday when Jeremy Christian got on the Green Line on my side of town and started harassing two teenage girls who had gotten on the wrong train on their way to the mall. Homeless Christian started ranting that it was his train because he paid taxes and they should leave his country. One of the girls was black and the other wore a hijab, so Christian launched into a racist, anti-Muslim tirade. The poor girls had nowhere to go. Three passengers, Ricky Best, Micah David-Cole Fletcher and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, tried to get the maniac to back down and Christian quickly pulled out a knife and stabbed each man in the neck, killing Best and Namkai-Meche.

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On Friday afternoon, while this was happening, I was on my way back from the University of Oregon in Eugene where I had attended a workshop on implicit bias. My thoughts were on beating the traffic to pick up Cozy from daycare. My mind drifted to my wife’s new job at an immigration law firm and the family of squirrels that had made a home in my attic, threatening to chew through our home’s wiring. While I was trying to pick which lane would get me home the fastest a man my same age, also a father, was laying on the Hollywood Max platform, bleeding to death and thinking his last thought. There’s a good chance I had met Ricky Best. He worked for the city and we often take city employees on our Fair Housing Council bus tour where we discuss Oregon’s dark history and encourage people to stand up to hate. Our bus driver is sure that we was one our riders.

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Those three men were the best of Portland; a Republican army veteran, a recent college graduate with a new job, and a PSU student who did spoken word poetry about Islamophobia. They were white men, not girls of color. They could have just thought, “Hey, this is not about me.” But it was about them. It was about us and how we stand together against the darkness. Riders on the train took off their clothes to try to stop the blood gushing from their necks while Christian, waving his knife, ran away. As Namkai-Meche gasped for life he managed to say, “I want everyone one the train to know I love them.”

When I first heard the news, I went into “official” mode. As the chair of Oregon’s Coalition Against Hate Crime I had to alert the network of community partners and start talking to our contacts in the Portland Police Bureau and the Department of Justice about an appropriate response. There were vigils to speak at and interviews to give to put this horrific crime in context, including on NPR’s All Things Considered. The “hate crime expert” hat was on and there was important work to do.

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On Tuesday, I told a CNN crew I would meet them for an interview at the growing memorial at the Hollywood Max station. That’s when my expert hat fell off.

The Max station is now covered in chalk messages of love and tolerance, flowers, candles, and pictures of the stabbing victims. It was overwhelming, this complete coming together in an outpouring of collective grief and appreciation for these heroes. Two little girls were drawing chalk hearts on the pavement with Rick’s, Michah’s and Taliesin’s name in then. I thought about how much Cozy loves to chalk on the sidewalk and I broke down. How do you explain this kind of hate to a child? The next two interviews I gave they had to stop because I broke into tears in the middle of them. This wasn’t academic anymore, this was my community.

We’ve made so much progress as a society. All the measures show kids are much more tolerant than previous generations. HR departments have equity managers and police departments do trainings on implicit bias. Even in the middle of Trump’s wink and nod to our worst qualities which has unleashed a new permissiveness for hate and bullying, we’re still better than we were. Trump and his thugs are a passing fad. The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends away from bullies.

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At the memorial, I wept because I forgot that. I thought my 30 years of work on this issue amounted to nothing if hate mongers were still slaying good people on commuter trains. But all the work we do has paid off. We are better. There will always be monsters like Jeremy Christian, who see themselves as righteous patriots. They will fall through the cracks no matter how small we make them. Let us stand up to them each and every time. We’ve come to far to turn back now.

I got home from a series of interviews last night and saw that our cat had killed one of the parents of the baby squirrel that was living in our attic and just felt the weight of the grey Portland sky.

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(Re) Making the case for hate crime laws in Trump’s America

March 15, 2017

Earlier this week a neighborhood in Southeast Portland was covered in spray-painted swastikas. Swastikas on cars, fences, trees, and sidewalks. It’s been part of a rash of similar graffiti in the metro area this winter, including “Kill niggers” and other racist scrawlings at Lake Oswego High School and a swastika with a “Heil Trump” tag in men’s room at Portland State University. A report released today by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism-California State University, San Bernardino found a 22% increase in reported hate crimes in 2016 in ten large cities across the country (including Seattle). Is this the new normal in Trump’s America?

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I spent the morning testifying at the Oregon state capital in support of Senate Bill 356, that would refine the state’s hate crime law and add gender and ethnicity to the protected statuses. It was a chance to explain to our state’s lawmakers the “greater harm” of bias motivated criminality and why the nation started passing these laws in the 1980s. I began my testimony with the story of a woman named Loni Kai, who was born a male named Lorenzo Okaruru. Kai was brutally murdered in 2001. She was last seen hitchhiking on a main thoroughfare in Hillsboro, Oregon. Her body was found in a  nearby field the following day with her head caved in from a savage beating. At the time, the case could not be investigated and prosecuted as a hate crime because gender (and gender identity) were not included in the state’s hate crime statute. Almost 16 years later there still have been no arrests in the murder of Loni Kai.

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Since election day there has been a dramatic increase of hate crimes and hate incidents around the country. Hate incidents are acts that protected by the Constitution as free speech but are still hateful. After the election, there were numerous reports of high school boys telling Muslim and Latinx students that Trump was going to get them. It’s not uncommon to see cars and trucks in Oregon with swastika placards. Hate crimes are things that are already illegal (vandalism, assault, murder, etc.) that are committed because of a bias motive towards the victims perceived demographic membership. Yes, this includes kids who get beat up because they are white.

Hate Crimes as a form of terrorism

If I had the dollar for every time somebody asked me, “Isn’t every crime a hate crime?” I’d be a rich sociologist. Most crimes are motivated by financial gain, so I’d like to hear your argument that stealing a bike is a hate crime or burning down the business for insurance fraud is a hate crime. Hate crimes focus on the motive, a common thing in criminal prosecution. That’s why there is a difference between homicide and manslaughter. Did that guy break into your house to steal your gun or to just take a shower? Those are two different crimes.

Why don’t we consider the September 11, 2001 attacks 2,977 cases of homicide (or one case of homicide with 2,977 victims)? Because all of America was the target. And those who were around on that day can testify that every single person was affected. (I had an irrational anxiety about crossing large bridges for months – a real problem in Portland). The goal wasn’t to kill just the people on the planes, in the Pentagon, and in the World Trade Center. The intended victim was all Americans. Terrorism is a message crime targeted at entire populations. A swastika spray-painted on a Jewish family’s car is going to impact more than just that family. This is why these laws exist. Greater harm.

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The research is clear. Hate hurts more. Nobody wants to be a victim of a crime. It straight up sucks. But hate crimes tend to be more violent, like baseball repeatedly bashing a skull violent. Like Osama bin Laden, hate criminals want to send a clear message to a larger population. Get out of my land. If hate crime victims survive, they are more likely to need reconstructive surgery and long term-therapy compared to other victims of violent crime. We know that hate crime victims have deeper psychological scars and suicide attempts. When someone beats you for your gender identity, it’s deeper than someone beating you because they want your debit card. Victims of hate tend to withdraw and then the cavalcade of problems continue; at their job, in their family, and with their community.

It doesn’t end there. The target community also suffers. Who is going to be the next victim? Is this attack a reflection of wider beliefs? If there is a gay bashing in Portland tonight, all members of the LGBTQ community in Portland will experience the wave of anxiety and impulse to withdraw. The 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw in Portland by racist skineads created a wave of fear in the city, and not just among the local Ethiopian community. Many people of color shut their doors and focused on their and their children’s safety. Like how Americans felt after 9/11, but just think of a 9/11 after 9/11 after 9/11.

Wait, there’s more! Researchers have found that whole communities suffer after a hate crime. People start wondering what side their neighbors are on. Vibrant networks are strained as distrust grows. Yusef Hawkins was a 16-year-old black boy who was murdered by a white mob in Bensonhurst, New York in 1989. In the aftermath, the community erupted into months of racial conflict and violence. To this day, you can’t hear the name “Bensonhurst” and not think of how bad we can be to each other.

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That leads to the last harm, the place itself. Like Bensonhurst, what do you think of when someone says Jasper, Texas or Laramie, Wyoming? There’s a good chance you recall the brutal 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard. Places become stigmatized by the hate crimes that occur there. Many people across the world still think of the Seraw killing (29 years ago!) when someone says “Portland, Oregon.” I’ve had numerous people ask me, “Is Portland safe? I’ve heard about these skinheads.” And pity the poor state of Idaho. Nobody is looking at brochures from the Chamber of Commerce these days. They’re using Google and guess what they find when they look up Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I am not your white person

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In the Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, the late African-American author James Baldwin asks us to take a real look at the state of race in America. Not a Hollywood version, but a real hard look. And by “us,” he really means white people because everybody else pretty much knows what’s up. I’ve learned that most white people don’t like it when a person of color holds a mirror too close to their face. They’ll call them “racist” for trying to show them their own unstated racism. They’ll accuse them of “stirring up trouble” (as a white friend from Georgia said on my Facebook page today about Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. John Lewis). Looking is uncomfortable. The airbrushed version of myself is so much prettier.

The ugly reflection is that hate crimes are on the increase in America. Bomb threats at Jewish Centers, Muslim-Americans being assaulted and told to leave the country, Latinos being beaten by self-styled vigilantes, gay and trans kids being bullied, and, yes, even some white folks getting beaten up just for being white. This is the civil war our current president has no interest in rectifying. In fact, he has only fanned the flames of hatred.

In Oregon, we are trying to take a stand against both the history of oppression and the current effort to take us back to “again,” when, for some people, America was “great.” Never again. I’m proud to be a part of that effort.

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