Connecting state and local government leaders
At an event hosted at Georgetown Law School, state leaders traded ideas about how to deal with the rise of extremist violence and hate crimes.
Domestic terrorism and hate crimes are on the rise in the United States, with the latter hitting a 16-year high in 2019. Much of that upswing has been attributed to white nationalists and right-wing groups, who are responsible for 71% of fatalities associated with domestic extremist violence in the U.S. in the past decade.
But while violence escalates, federal prosecutions of hate crimes have declined, leaving state and local leaders to fill in the gap.
An event hosted on Thursday at Georgetown Law School brought together state leaders and researchers to discuss what steps can be taken at the state and local level to deal with hate-fueled violence.
“When we think about hate crimes and when we think about extremism, we tend to think about the role of the federal government,” said Meryl Chertoff, the executive director of Georgetown’s project on State and Local Government Policy and Law. “In terms of enforcement, the Justice Department and [the Department of Homeland Security] have not been particularly aggressive in the past few years. And that’s where it’s become really, really important what cities and states are doing.”
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was in office during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which was attended by over a thousand neo-Nazis and white supremacists from more than 30 states. McAuliffe, who has written a book about white nationalism since leaving office, said that domestic terrorism “happens every single day” and that “law enforcement is Virginia is constantly on the alert.”
Virginia officials knew about the rally months in advance and embedded undercover state police into extremist groups to monitor them. “It was very clear what the intent of these folks were,” McAuliffe said. “The good news is many of these folks were prosecuted.”
Mary B. McCord, the legal director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said that the Unite the Right rally created a call to action for state and local officials to combat domestic extremism. “There’s been, historically, a lot of apprehension from state and local officials to take actions that they fear would trample upon First Amendment rights,” she said. “We zealously guard First Amendment rights in this country even to say very, very hateful things that almost all of us would find abhorrent.”
McCord said that state and local officials don’t necessarily have to target extremist groups with hate speech laws, though. She advised the city of Charlottesville on a case where they used Virginia laws banning private militias to sue the groups that attended the Unite the Right rally—a lawsuit that resulted in a ban on members returning to the city while armed in groups larger than two.
McCord has since traveled the country advising other cities and states on how to use similar “content-neutral” tactics that target “coordinated, organized use of force” rather than the ideologies behind them. “Every single state in the country has some sort of anti private militia law on its books,” she said. “So state and local [officials] need to think creatively about the tools they can use.”
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is taking a different approach, hoping to catch perpetrators of hate crimes further upstream. Hate crimes in New Jersey have escalated dramatically in the past few years, from around 550 in both 2017 and 2018, to 944 recorded incidents in 2019. But Grewal said that the most disturbing aspect of hate crimes in his state isn’t the numbers—it’s the people committing them. “The most troubling statistic is that in 2019, half of the known offenders were young people, and the majority of those incidents took place on school campuses,” he said.
Grewal pointed to arson cases from 2011 and 2012 when two 19-year-old extremists threw Molotov cocktails into synagogues, as an example of escalating hate-fueled behavior. Grewal said that those perpetrators likely didn’t start with Molotov cocktails, but with smaller, nonviolent displays of hate that went unpunished, something Grewal is hoping to change.
“As state AGs we’re uniquely situated,” he said. “We’re the first preventers. We have tools we can use to go to the root causes of these problems … We’re going to go into our schools. We’re going to change the school curriculum to talk about issues of bias at a younger age. We do a great job training our young people for tests on math and science, but we do a horrible job teaching them to be good human beings.”
Grewal said that he didn’t think a slap on the wrist was a sufficient way to deal with the types of hate-motivated incidents that appear in elementary and middle schools. Several New Jersey school districts saw swastikas pop up on lockers and in bathroom stalls repeatedly in 2019.
“We need to use those incidents as teaching moments,” he said. “It’s too late by the time they’re throwing Molotov cocktails into a synagogue, but if we can get them early, then we can change their behavior.”
Karl Racine, Attorney General of the District of Columbia, said that he hopes to change behavior by making it harder for those with extremist views to find each other online and potentially get indoctrinated into violent ideologies. “It would seem to me that there’s a lot of pressure that can be brought to bear, good old fashioned moral pressure, on the tech companies to see themselves as a link in the responsibility chain for offline conduct that actually derives from online crap,” he said.
Grewal agreed and said that New Jersey had identified social media as a key driver in the state’s rising hate crime stats. Facebook this month took down a New Jersey community page that frequently featured anti-semitic posts about the state’s Orthodox Jewish population—but that acton only came after the state’s Division on Civil Rights spent ten months arguing with the social media giant about whether the page violated it’s terms of service and could lead to violence.
“The algorithms that these platforms use allow bigots to find community. Their hate becomes normalized,” Grewal said. Now, he said, states need to start “using the bully pulpit” against tech companies to force them to take action because “that’s a power we all have as AGs.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.