Our VoiceNews & Politics

Communities in fear, the after effects of hate violence

Eric Ward • Jan 10, 2011

Saturday’s assassination attempt on Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona is part of a growing trend that began years ago.

The candidacy and ultimate election of Barack Obama touched off a deep and sustained political backlash. Politically motivated hate violence included arson of a predominantly African-American church on election night, the murder of Cape Verdean immigrants, and a few months later, the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that while overall bias crimes dropped by 2% from 2007 to 2008, incidents of anti-Black bias crimes rose by nearly 5.9%.

During the 2008 Democratic National Convention in August, police in Denver, Colorado detained three individuals after discovering a weapon, drugs and wigs in their possession. The individuals, eventually released, were described as “white supremacists.”

Two months later, two racist skinheads were arrested in Tennessee after law enforcement uncovered their plans to behead black Americans and assassinate Barack Obama. The local paper, The Jackson-Sun, stated, “Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman planned to go state to state to kill 88 (“H” is the 8th letter in the alphabet and 88 is used to symbolize the Nazi greeting “Heil Hitler”) people and behead 14 black people, according to federal authorities.”

On the East Coast Ralph Nicoletti pled guilty in Federal Court for three separate incidents of assault on the evening of November 4, 2008.  Nicoletti had targeted African Americans who he believed had voted for Barack Obama.  Nicoletti’s spree included attacking a teenager with a metal pipe, and using his car to run down a man who he mistakenly believed to be African American. This victim was comatose for nearly a month.

Such violence contributed to an already charged political atmosphere that proved fertile for both white nationalist and racial conservatives.  Otherwise disparate factions, now united in their hostility to the nation’s first African-American president and committed to his defeat, fueled existing social movements (e.g., anti-immigrant) and gave rise to new formations (e.g., the Tea Party).

Growing political violence and organizing pulled the rhetoric and agenda of the Republican (and, arguably, the Democratic Party) further to the right.

In this context, ideas considered fringe the year before — such as eliminating birthright citizenship from the Constitution — entered into the mainstream of political discourse. The goal, to create racially-tinged political opposition to Obama amongst a segment of the white population, was soon playing out on TV screens and public meetings across the nation.

Hate violence serves to silence those opposed to the politics of division.  Hate crime scholars Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt have argued for years that hate violence carries a chilling effect beyond the individual victim; bias crimes put a whole community (especially those who can identify with the victim) on edge because of the seemingly random nature of the act. Those living in fear of becoming possible victims are less likely to put themselves in situations where they might suffer a similar fate. In this way, bias crimes ensure that whole groups become a victim of the crime.

The American Psychological Association says of hate crimes, “. . . not only is it an attack on one’s physical self, but it is also an attack on one’s very identity.” This is what makes political hate violence so uniquely dangerous. In short, it remains an effective form of social control by those opposed to a nation firmly grounded in equity and opportunity.

While incidents of political hate violence, such as the attack on Representative Giffords, are typically looked upon as isolated incidents of individual victimization, the larger impact on democracy should not be overlooked.

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