NYC Cabbie Attacked: Hate Speech into Action

Ahmed Sharif, a New York City cab driver stabbed by a passenger, says he was definitely attacked because of his religion.  Sharif was stabbed repeatedly while driving his taxi on the East Side Tuesday.  The suspect, a white man named Michael Enright, attacked him after first asking whether he was Muslim.   Many are saying that this attack is part of a growing anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S.

(Image from CSM)

The apparent hate crime attack on Mr. Sharif and the alarming wave of hate crimes against Latinos that Joe wrote about yesterday are connected in a number of ways.   One of the major links is the way that these acts of violence are part of a larger social context that includes rising tide of hate speech targeting Muslims and Latinos.

The research connecting hate speech to hate crimes is mixed.   When it comes to individuals explaining their motivation for hate crimes, there’s actually relatively little research that investigates motivations for hate crimes.  One study that does this finds a range of motivations:  thrill, defensive, mission, and retaliatory motivation (J. McDevitt, J. Levin, and S. Bennett, “Hate Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology,” Journal of Social Issues, 58 (2):303-318).   In the case of Enright’s attack on Sharif, this appears to be a “mission” hate crime, in which Enright was on a “mission” to attack anyone who was Muslim.   Other research, such as Alexander Tsesis’ book Destructive Messages (NYU Press, 2002), demonstrate how hate speech gives rise to dangerous social movements.

The question really is where did Enright, a film student who was working on a project to promote cross-cultural understanding, get the idea that he should attack someone who was Muslim?  No one knows for sure.   The fact is that after traveling to Afghanistan to work on a film project, Enright returned to New York where there is an ugly display of hate speech downtown about the so-called mosque controversy. Could this have played even a small role in Enright’s violent actions last Tuesday?  It seems more than plausible.

The fact is that the U.S., and even the country’s most diverse city, New York, are becoming more treacherous for people of color.   And yet, this violence gets repaid with loyalty.  Despite the brutal attack on him, the cab driver Mr. Sharif told supporters outside City Hall that he still loves New York.

“This is a city of all colors, races, all religion, everyone. We live here, side by side, peacefully.”

Mexican Immigrants Target of Racist Hate Crimes on Staten Island (Updated)

In recent weeks there have been a series of attacks against Mexican immigrants on Staten Island, a borough of New York City.  The police are currently investigating another possible hate crime that occurred around 5:00 p.m. on Friday night.   News reports say that a 31-year-old Mexican man was walking home from playing soccer at a local park when he was attacked by five men yelling anti-Mexican slurs.

There is something of a history of hate crimes against Mexican immigrants on Staten Island.    In 2008, a man living in the Port Richmond area of Staten Island took out his racism-fueled anger by driving his truck into store fronts he believed were owned by Mexican immigrants.

This kind of violence directed toward a particular group can be attributed, at least in part, to the anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric that is becoming more pervasive in the current political climate.   Evidence of this hostile climate is as close as the nearest Google search.   Type in the keyword “Mexicans” and get the suggested “Related search: I hate Mexicans.”   Also, note the racist images that generated just on the search for “Mexicans.”  This sort of rhetoric is not only created by those on the (supposed) lunatic fringe of society, but by some mainstream news media talking heads as well.  This kind of hostile environment – in speech, in images – eventually leads to action that affects real human beings.

There are ways to stand up against this sort of violence and intolerance.  The folks at have launched a website based on anti-racist actions, called Not in Our Town. The site is dedicated to empowering people to fight back against hate and intolerance in their communities.  When attacks like these occur, revealing a dangerous atmosphere of hate, it’s up to everyone to denounce that hate and violence and work toward building a community that is safe for everybody.

UPDATED 8/5/10: Another person has been attacked on Staten Island.  A young man, Christian Vazquez, 18 who volunteers at with an anti-violence organization, was kicked and punched to the ground by assailants allegedly yelling anti-Mexican slurs. The attack was the 11th bias incident in the Port Richmond area since April.  Some New Yorkers continue to stand up and speak out against this anti-immigrant, anti-Latino violence, as in the recent “Night Out Against Crime” event.

Russian Neo-Nazis Killed 71 in Racist Attacks in 2009

Racist neo-Nazis in Russia killed 71 people in 2009, according to reports from Sky News (h/t: Hope not Hate). A group known as “Slavic Union,” is intent on eliminating anyone who appears to be “non-Russian” from Russia, including through violent attacks. A leader of the group, Dmitry Dyomushkin, says that he is interested in cultivating a “respectable image” for himself and the group, claiming that 60% of Russian citizens support the groups’ goals. However, he asserts that “even with this majority we are not allowed to be part of the political process because the government has squeezed out opposition.The whole new generation of Russians are nationalists – our influence on young people is very strong.” This short video clip (3:16) about the group is chilling:

This news story also mentions that the neo-Nazi group has made digital videos of their attacks on immigrants and posted them online. Despite this bold move, no one has been arrested in this attack. This form of cyber racism, which seems to be characteristic of Russian neo-nazis, is one that I highlighted a couple of years ago on this blog. In 2007, CurrentTV featured a story called “From Russia with Hate,” about neo-nazis in Russia who are filming racist attacks on immigrants, then posting these digital videos online.

The rise of neo-Nazi violence in Russia, and the use of digital video to publicize their racist violence, is an alarming trend that warrants our attention.

Hate Crimes Legislation Passes Congress (UPDATED)

Bruce DeBoskey, an Anti-Defamation Mountain States Regional Director, has reported and analyzed some good news, the fact that the US House and US Sentate have, after years of white conservatives blocking it, passed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (introduced in Congress in 1999:

It has been 11 years since Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a lonely Wyoming fence, and left to die because his attackers hated gay men. That same year, James Byrd, Jr., was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, a victim of a racially motivated crime. One of Byrd’s attackers wore tattoos including the image of a black man hanging from a tree. Shepard and Byrd were not the only victims of those horrible crimes. In both cases, the murderers were not simply committing a crime against Shepard or Byrd; they were sending a chilling message to everyone who shared the characteristics of the victims. . . . The most recent FBI statistics show that there were 7,624 hate crimes in 2007. That’s almost one hate crime for every hour of every day. Most of those crimes were based on race, and many victims were targeted because of their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Crimes against Latinos are on the rise, fueled in part by demonizing rhetoric about undocumented immigrants.

It took a long time, but now — finally — the United States Congress has sent a resounding message of support to victimized groups, a serious warning to those who would be perpetrators and a statement of safety and security to all who live in this country. Last week, Congress passed the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” and sent it to President Barack Obama, who has indicated that he will sign it into law.

The FBI stats are considered to be quite low, since many police agencies do not report or report zero crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center has long joined with many law enforcement and civil rights officials to get this legislation passed, and they have estimated the number of such crimes at 50,000, much higher than the FBI.


President Obama just signed the legislation. After years of Republicans blocking it. Yet another sign of change that we can use in the areas of anti-oppression action and law enforcement.

Interracial Couple Gunned Down After Racist Remark

“What are you doing with that white woman?” was the racist question hurled at Jeffrey Wellmaker, an African American man out walking in Phoenix, Arizona with his girlfriend, described only as a”39-year-old white female.”  After two unidentified assailants asked this, they pursued Wellmaker and his girlfriend, then shot them both.  Wellmaker survived the shooting.  His girlfriend did not.

While this may sound like something out of the 19th century south, this is present day, in a large city, in the sunbelt of the southwestern U.S.    As one researcher suggests: Although interracial (hetero)sexual relations are no longer illegal, and the number of visible, consensual interracial partnerships has increased, there still remains a discourse against these social arrangements circulating in the United States that continues to bear the traces of the history of antimiscegenation.”

“Antimiscegenation” is rooted in several equally incorrect beliefs: 1) that race is some inherent, biological quality; 2) that race, specifically the white race, can in some way be “pure,” and 3) that “mixing” races, that is by people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds having sexual contact will result in a diminishing of the “purity” and good qualities associated with whiteness.

This is complete balderdash not supported by any kind of research. In fact, if you’d like to read some good research on the origins and meanings of the development of antimiscegenation laws, I recommend Elise Virginia Lemire’s “Miscegenation” : making race in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) as a good starting point.  As Lemire notes, discussion of “miscegenation” as a threat emerged in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, as the question of black political rights was debated.  As the debate over whether or not blacks were, in fact, human beings deserving of human rights grew more vociferous, descriptions and pictorial representations of whites coupling with blacks proliferated primarily in the North. Novelists, short-story writers, poets, journalists, and political cartoonists imagined that political equality would be followed by widespread interracial sex and marriage, and with it, the supposed decline of the white race.

Yet, some people (@CaptainChaos in the comments thread here) and the gunman in the assault in Arizona, continue to believe this sort of thing.  And, unfortunately, a woman has lost her life because of it.

Working at the Holocaust Museum: The Impact

holocaust memorial museum childrens tile 3
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mike Murrow
Over at the DailyKos blog, author Greg Mitchell has posted a comment from his daughter, Jeni Mitchell, who worked for a time at the Holocaust Museum that was attacked yesterday:

I worked in Visitor Services and spent a lot of time talking to people both before and after their visits to the museum. It was indelibly striking, the emotion and sincerity with which people spoke to me.

I spoke to survivors of the Holocaust who had been waiting decades to see this kind of museum and memorial, who exhausted every physical strength they had to visit the museum in person. I spoke to veterans who had liberated concentration camps; as a unit, they walked into those horrors in 1945, and as a decimated unit of survivors, they walked into our museum in 1993. I received a package of letters from a Midwestern school: each student had walked through the museum and then written a heartfelt letter of thanks, expressing an idealism unworn by adult confrontation (“We shouldn’t hate anyone,” was a popular sentiment).

In truth, I never spoke to anyone who had been through the main exhibit of the Museum who was not profoundly moved and seriously affected by the experience. This was not a foregone conclusion but the result of the sensitivity and empathy embedded within the exhibit by the curatorial staff, and the raft of educational and cultural programs that supported the Museum’s mission.

I remember, before the Museum opened, there was a great sense of wonder: how many visitors would come? The fact that 2 million people a year walk through the doors shows the visceral attraction of the Museum. People want to know: what happened? how could this happen? could it happen again? what would I have done – and what can I do now? These are not easy questions, but they are among the most important.

I remember vividly my visit to the Museum some years back. Many people there were profoundly moved by the experience. Many of us wept, especially at the children’s drawings and pile of shoes. I highly recommend it to anyone who has not been there. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. That certainly goes for the bloody impacts of anti-Semitism, then and now.

Museums like this one play a critical role in teaching all people about the fact that racist words and frames have an impact, words and frames kill. In this case, anti-Semitic and similar racist frames have killed millions. They are still killing, thanks in part to new ways of spreading racist frames such as the Internet.

Link Roundup on Holocaust Museum Shooting

Holocaust Museum ShootingIt’s been just about 24 hours since the white supremacist James W. von Brunn (shown here in a more recent DMV photo released by police) opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and killed security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns.   I’ll be back later today with some analysis but for now, I wanted to share my growing link archive about von Brunn and the shooting.

Mainstream News Outlets:

  • Long History of Hate (Washington Post)
  • White Supremacist to Be Charged with Murder (FoxNews)
  • Suspect called genius, ‘a ‘oner and a hothead’ (MSNBC – same content as the WaPo link above) – most memorable line is the last one, quoting someone that knew von Brunn: “The responsible white separatist community condemns this. It makes us look bad.” Indeed.
  • Guard Opened Door for Killer (CNN) – The museum canceled a performance scheduled for Wednesday night of a play about racism and anti-Semitism, based on a fictional meeting between Anne Frank and Emmett Till, written by Janet Langhart Cohen, the wife of former Defense Secretary and U.S. Sen. William Cohen. CNN also has the video (9:00) of the Cohens describing what they saw (along with another example of CNN’s horrible use of illustrative technology).
  • Holocaust Museum suspects’ views were known (LATimes) – Quotes Heidi Beirich, research director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, saying “We’ve been tracking this guy since the late 1970s. He has an extremely long history with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and is extremely hard-core.” After his release from prison von Brunn went to work for a Southern California bookstore connected to the Institute for Historical Review, a top Holocaust-denial group in the U.S.
  • According to von Brunn’s own bio from his website used as source material by lots of the news agencies, he moved to NYC in 1947 and found a job at a “big-league advertising [firm] on Madison Avenue” although the ad firm he mentions denies that he was ever employed there.
  • His (second) ex-wife says she ‘detested’ his views – (NYDaily News) – She also says that the 6’5″ von Brunn reminded her of John Wayne and that when they were married, von Brunn frequently said that he would ‘go out with his boots on.’ “I took it to mean that he was going to go out and try to take some people with him,” she’s quoted as saying.  After leaving prison, von Brunn became a prolific writer in the white supremacist fringe and a member of the Mensa, a group for people with high IQs.

Around the Blogosphere:

If I missed a crucial link, please feel free to add a comment and post a link there.

Update: And now neo-Nazi violence, again, in Russia.

Update2: the Gun he had was illegal:

QUESTION: Can you talk about his firearm, sir? He was a convicted felon, so how did he have the rifle?

Asst. Dir. JOSEPH PERSICHINI, JR., FBI DC Field Office: That I can’t answer.

QUESTION: He was a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, a long gun. That is illegal anywhere in the country. Is that not right?

Chief CATHY LANIER, DC Police: That’s correct.

QUESTION: So, we don’t have any sense of how he came into possession of that?

LANIER: Obviously that’s something that will be followed up on.

All White Jury, All White Justice

At the end of July, 2008 in a small town in Pennsylvania, two drunken white boys (ages 16 and 17) attacked Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant, striking him repeatedly with their fists then kicking him in the head once he lay on the ground. According to one report, by the time help arrived, Ramirez lay convulsing in the middle of the street, foam running from his mouth. As they ran away from beating and kicking this man to death, witnesses heard the one of the white boys say to a woman who was with Ramirez: ” ‘You effin bitch, tell your effin Mexican friends get the eff out of Shenandoah or you’re gonna be laying effin next to him.’ ” These facts are not in dispute.

And yet, the two white boys – who were charged as adults with homicide and racial intimidation – were acquitted yesterday. Here’s a short report from CNN (3:21) about the verdict:

One of the experts in this clip, Avery Friedman, contends that this is a pretty clear-cut case of jury nullification. In other words, the all-white jury in this case effectively nullified the law by acquitting these two white thugs. This kind of result: white justice by all-white juries, is a common feature of American justice, although it is most often associated with the South during the Civil Rights struggle. For example, in the Emmet Till case, an all-white jury refused toconvict (typo corrected – thanks for catching that Alston!) the Klan members who had all but confessed to kidnapping and murdering Till. In the recent Pennsylvania case, the all-white jury failed to convict two white men in the murder of a Mexican immigrant. As Friedman says, “the only reason he is dead is because he was Mexican.” The murder of Emmet Till fifty years ago, and the white justice handed out by an all-white jury, proved to be a catalyst for a social movement for racial equality. I can only hope that Ramirez’s death sparks another such movement.

Thanks to Victor Ray for his comment about this case.

[Updated 5/14/09: Sign the Luis Ramirez Hate Crime Petition sponsored by MALDEF.]

SPLC Report on Increases in Racist and Other Hate Groups

The Southern Poverty Law Center just put out its spring 2009 “Intelligence Report,” with important articles on racist and other hate groups, on the “sovereign” movements, and on anti-immigrant groups like the “minutemen.”

The report has this to say about the striking increases in racist and other hate groups in the last year or so:

From white power skinheads decrying “President Obongo” at a racist gathering in rural Missouri, to neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen hurling epithets at Latino immigrants from courthouse steps in Oklahoma, to anti-Semitic black separatists calling for death to Jews on bustling street corners in several East Coast cities, hate group activity in the U.S. was disturbing and widespread throughout 2008, as the number of hate groups operating in America continued to rise. Last year, 926 hate groups were active in the U.S., up more than 4% from 888 in 2007. That’s more than a 50% increase since 2000, when there were 602 groups.

Immigrants are a major target now for these groups, with much new support for the racist anti-immigrant groups coming from commentators in the mainstream mass media. The language of immigrant “invasion” and “flooding,” as well as animalizing words, is very much increasing across the media and the Internet, extending the language attacks so well described by linguist Otto Santa Ana in his work on the Los Angeles Times back in the 1990s. He discovered numerous reports on Latin American immigrants that used racialized metaphors. Reporters often used words and metaphors portraying Mexican and other Latin American immigrants as animals, invaders, and disreputable persons. They wrote of the need to “ferret out illegal immigrants,” of government programs being “a lure to immigrants,” of the appetite for “the red meat of deportation,” and of government agents catching “a third of their quarry.” Other terms and metaphors portrayed these immigrants as dangerous, as a burden, dirt, disease, invasion, or waves flooding the nation.

Today, as earlier, In the mainstream media those who craft such images of an alien people flooding and threatening the nation are not working class whites. They are middle and upper middle class whites. Working class and lower middle class whites may pick up on, and extend, such negative metaphors. Today, as a decade back, on numerous Internet websites, as well as in videos and books, white supremacist and other anti-immigrant groups describe Mexican and other Latino immigrants as a “cultural cancer” or a “wildfire.” They too are sometimes concerned that Mexicans have a plan to “reconquer” the United States.

The SPLC report adds this chilling note on increases in hate groups:

As in recent years, hate groups were animated by the national immigration debate. But two new forces also drove them in 2008: the worsening recession, and Barack Obama’s successful campaign to become the nation’s first black president. Officials reported that Obama had received more threats than any other presidential candidate in memory, and several white supremacists were arrested for saying they would assassinate him or allegedly plotting to do so.

Link Roundup: Racism Around the Web and Around the World

Cyber Racism: Facebook is under fire in Australia for not pulling pages that contain racist rants, and this has led some to push for an overhaul of the cyber-racism laws there.  Just as a reminder, Australia is a democracy and they regulate hate speech. It’s possible to do both.    That’s not happening here in the U.S., so as Geoffery Dunn writing at Huffington Post points out, places like Team Sarah continue to roll out the online racism.

Hate Crimes, Old & New: Brent Staples has a nice column in yesterday’s New York Times about the contemporary exhibition of photographs of lynchings. Staples ponders the ethical dilemmas of showcasing these photographs in a time and place in which the perpetrators may still be alive and amoung the audience.   Curiously, Staples seems to locate “haters” as exclusively in the past.   There are plenty of examples around that suggest otherwise, including this case in Staten Island in which two white teens were arrested for the election night beating of a young black man and a hit-and-run.    And, this incident in which a 12-year-old black girl was pounced on by white officers who assumed she was a “prostitute” because she was wearing “tight shorts,” is just outrageous.    And, this incident reminds me of Judith Butler’s point in Excitable Speech that the State is often the worst perpetrator when it comes to hate-speech-and-acts.  (It’s not quite the same, Butler was referring to speech/acts like the entire criminal justice system and in particular, the death penalty, but the fact these cops were acting in their official capacity as agents of the State seems like a related point.)

South African Racism Persists: The election of Obama has reverberrated around the globe, and people in South Africa are contemplating the implications of his election for the demise of racism.  Back in November, South African novelist and Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, declared that Obama’s election marks the end of racism.   Chris Mbekela, a PhD student at Rhodes University, takes issue with Gordimer’s assessment.    Writing at the Daily Dispatch Online, Mbekela argues that racism persists globally and in the South African context.

Racism & Homophobia: Irene Monroe takes up the debate about racism and homophobia, and argues persuasively that Gay is Not the New Black (h/t: Adia) and Heather Tirado Gilligan says that we need to work on healing the rifts between us by building coalitions among straight folks and LGBT folks across racial lines (h/t: Joe).  The passage of Prop 8 gives “LGBT advocates the chance to show other minority groups that their causes are interconnected, legally and ethically.” Time to get to work, we’re all community organizers now.