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‘All these changes are happening … it’s about how you respond to it’

Keizertimes Intern

A year after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally left many injured and one killed, the American conversation about hate continues to stall out in certain places.

For an example, look no further than the Keizer City Council chambers. After a group of residents approached city leaders with a request to adopt an inclusivity resolution last year, the issue died with relatively minimal discussion. (See related story, Council dragging its feet)

In a state like Oregon, which regularly votes blue in national elections and is touted as a progressive haven, the conversation stalls out in a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are. Oregon was not founded, in 1859, as a liberal paradise: it was founded as a place for white people to escape the abolitionist movement in the years preceding the Civil War.

That legacy did not fade, it found new outlets. As Randy Blazak, a hate researcher who serves as chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes in Portland, said, “In the 1990s, the traditional Klan started to fade, but there was a lot of energy around the idea that the northwest region would secede and become a white-only homeland.”

When Blazak moved to Portland to conduct research in the late 1980s, he did so because Portland had become known as “Skinhead City.”

“It was, I guess, shocking to a lot of folk because Oregon was seen as a progressive place,” Blazak said. But the history of the state, and of America, continues to haunt the present.

In the early 2000s, as Oregon started to claim its reputation as a progressive place, the internet became a ubiquitous part of American life, the first African American president was elected into office, and the public conversation shifted. Public tolerance for white nationalist groups in the mainstream may have lessened, but they didn’t go away – they moved online.

“As Oregon became more diverse and progressive, the radical right finds a home on the internet. It becomes more decentralized,” Blazak said.

Going online did not mean hate groups became benign; it simply shifted their means of influence. People susceptible to racist ideologies, white nationalist ideologies, hateful ideologies of any kind, no longer had to join the Ku Klux Klan; they could stumble upon YouTube videos of leaders of hate groups espousing hateful rhetoric. The move to online communities meant hate groups no longer considered mainstream had a broader reach, but it also changed the equation. Of late, most acts of hate aren’t committed by people who claim membership to these groups.

“The classic example of this is the Charleston church shooting” in 2015, Blazak said. “Dylann Roof was not a member of a hate group or going to meetings, but he read a lot about it online, got all jacked up on the feeling he was losing his country and his women and went into a church and killed nine people. Those people had nothing to do with what he was mad about.”

Hateful rhetoric, Blazak added, is: “always centered around losing the country of white, cis-gendered, abled-bodied, straight men.” The hatred comes from a sense of loss of their place in whatever hierarchy they perceive themselves as being at the top of.

“They believe if they don’t take it back then they are lost,” Blazak said. “In a sense, they are right. Our country is getting browner, there are more women working than men. All these changes are happening, but it’s about how you respond to it.”

The response of those who felt ostracized by the changing demographics of America were, in some ways, relegated to the fringes of society during the Obama years. During those years, the messaging was recoded – birtherism, for example – then the campaign and election of Donald Trump opened a door for hate groups to reemerge.

“While it was online, [the movement] mutates and then comes back onto the streets with the election of Donald Trump. The haircuts, the shirts, and the words are different, but it’s essentially the same,” Blazak said.

Blazak references the Proud Boys, who hosted an alt-right rally in Portland in early August. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes the New York-based Proud Boys as an alt-right hate group that denies its connection to the movement, while simultaneously espousing misogynistic, Islamophobic, and white nationalist rhetoric.

“The Proud Boys are a perfect example of this generation’s hate movement. It always starts out as misogynistic and white male solutions to problems,” Blazak said. Their approach, he said, “[is] classic scapegoat victim-blaming. They pick an enemy to rally against. The Proud Boys are very similar to the skinheads of the 1980s with better fashion sense.”

According to the SPLC, Oregon is home to 18 hate groups or chapters of hate groups. Even more locally, this includes a branch of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, in Salem and Oregonians for Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant hate group in McMinnville.

For those who do not align with hate groups or their ideologies, facing these circumstances can be daunting. But there are initiatives focused on combating hate. The Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes (CAHC), of which Blazak serves as chair, was founded in 1997 in response to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people and injured hundreds more with a homemade explosive while trying to incite a race war.

Blazak and the CAHC also show up to rallies and protests, to support victims of hate activity and to outreach to members of hate groups in the hopes of breaking them out of the groups’ ideologies.

After all, Blazak said, members of hate groups “are not monsters.”

“For the most part, they are average people who don’t know how to make sense of a world that changed so quickly. As much as we hear about Antifa, I don’t know any former Nazis who are going to change after being hit with a rock,” he said. “That’s not how it works.”

In Keizer, there’s no organization dedicated to working with either the victims of hate activity or with perpetrators of hate activity. However, in Salem, a city commission is dedicated to victim outreach: the Salem Human Rights Commission. The group was a response to the Civil Rights movement in 1967 and the city’s stance on inclusivity was codified five years later in city ordinances. The commission is comprised of volunteer community members appointed by the Salem mayor who work alongside city staff and a liaison from the police department. Commission members train to work with victims of hate activity.

The commission is comprised of several task forces, including an LGBTQ+ task force tasked with collecting information about and understanding hate crimes and bias incidents committed against the LGBTQ+ community and implementing trainings for law enforcement who come into contact with LGBTQ+ victims and suspects of crimes in their work.

The task force that has been around the longest is the core response team.

“The core response team serves the people of Salem directly,” Danielle Meyer, chair of the commission, said. “It is there to support victims of hate and bias crimes. … If someone chooses, they can have members of the core response team go and talk with them. We’ll have a one-on-one interview and we listen to what their needs are.”

Because the commission deals with both hate crimes and bias incidents, there’s not always a criminal charge to be made against the perpetrator of the discriminatory behavior, and sometimes the victim doesn’t follow through out of fear of being re-victimized. However, there are often civil means of dealing with the kinds of bias incidents that are reported, and the commission helps people figure out what resources they can draw on to resolve the issue.

Gretchen Bennett, the Human Rights Commission’s federal compliance manager, said even if the incident doesn’t rise to the level of a crime, “it would still be something the HRC would want to help with, because it’s still experienced as bias by the victim so we would want to offer support, try to problem-solve and offer solutions that aren’t criminal in nature.”

Often, the commission finds itself in a place to reaffirm the city’s denunciation of discrimination, even if there isn’t any action they can take to rectify the hateful activity.

Meyer recalled an incident from last year, when a member of the community was experiencing harassment because of their national origin.

“The family didn’t want to bring any attention to themselves, so they didn’t want to make a report. They didn’t want to have a big thing happen,” Meyer said. “The core response team drafted a letter  that we sent to the individual that had experienced it, saying this does not represent the City of Salem, this is not right, and we’re so sorry that you had to deal with this.”

The letter was signed by Meyer, the commission chair, and the Salem mayor.

“The family reported back to us that that letter meant so much to them,” Meyer continues, her voice catching. “It makes me tear up a little, thinking about that, because apparently they carried that letter around with them for quite a while. I really like that story. All it was was kind words, because that’s all we could do.”

The commission’s mission feels particularly urgent in the current time and place, but Meyer points out it’s important to recognize that current levels of hate in America are not date-stamped with November 8, 2016.

“I think one of the things that we need to keep in mind, when we’re looking at the discrimination, when we’re looking at the hate: we’re not looking at something that has risen since the election. We’re not looking at something that was quiet in the 1990s and got louder, or something that used to be loud in the 1960s,” Meyer said. “We’re looking at something that’s been a part of humanity forever. … We have to always be present here to combat that discrimination and hate, but it’s always going to be there and it’s going to be in all aspects of society in one form or another.”