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March 18, 2016 9

Seeking Justice: The Pardon of Leo Frank

This week marks the 30th anniver­sary of a sig­nif­i­cant event in ADL his­tory – the deci­sion by the Geor­gia State Board of Par­dons and Paroles to posthu­mously par­don Leo Frank.  Frank was the Jew­ish man­ager of an Atlanta pen­cil fac­tory who was falsely accused and wrongly con­victed in August 1913 of the rape and mur­der of Mary Pha­gan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the factory. leo-frank-anti-semitism

Anti-Semitism was ram­pant in the early 1900’s and Leo Frank’s trial attracted national atten­tion and sig­nif­i­cant press cov­er­age – includ­ing irre­spon­si­ble press out­lets that inflamed the pub­lic with base and sala­cious anti-Semitism.  The trial itself was infected with a pervasively-hostile and anti-Semitic atmos­phere – from the argu­ments of the pros­e­cut­ing attor­ney to furi­ous mobs shout­ing “Hang the Jew!” out­side the cour­t­house.  Leo Frank’s trial and con­vic­tion shocked and gal­va­nized the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­nity – and under­lined the impor­tance of the estab­lish­ment of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in Chicago in 1913 with a mis­sion to “to stop the defama­tion of the Jew­ish peo­ple and to secure jus­tice and fair treat­ment to all.”

Frank appealed his con­vic­tion – all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 7 to 2, that Frank’s con­sti­tu­tional due process rights had not been vio­lated.  Jus­tices Oliver Wen­dell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes strongly dis­sented:  “Mob law does not become due process of law by secur­ing the assent of a ter­ror­ized jury. “

After all appeals were exhausted, Geor­gia Gov­er­nor Geor­gia John M. Sla­ton reviewed the case and com­muted Frank’s death sen­tence to life impris­on­ment. That coura­geous deci­sion in June 1915, enraged many and sparked riots in the streets.  Two months later, a mob of armed men kid­napped Frank from his prison cell, drove him over 100 miles to Mari­etta (Mary Phagan’s home­town) and lynched him.

Leo Frank lynching

Efforts to vin­di­cate jus­tice for Leo Frank were strength­ened in 1982, when eighty-three-year-old Alonzo Mann, who ran errands in the fac­tory as a boy, came for­ward to announce that he had seen the fac­tory jan­i­tor car­ry­ing Mary Phagan’s body to the base­ment on the day of her death.  The jan­i­tor had threat­ened to kill him if he told any­one.  ADL’s Atlanta-based South­ern Coun­sel, Charles Wit­ten­stein and promi­nent immi­gra­tion lawyer and national ADL leader Dale Schwartz led a vig­or­ous legal cam­paign to clear Frank’s name.  And on March 11, 1986, those efforts were rewarded with a par­don.  The land­mark deci­sion, how­ever, did not exon­er­ate Frank and prove his inno­cence.  Instead, Geor­gia par­doned Frank because of their fail­ure to pro­tect him and bring his mur­der­ers to justice.

 It’s hard to imag­ine a trial steeped in such anti-Semitism or racism today, but our nation is far from free of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant dis­crim­i­na­tion and hate crimes.  Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. famously said:  “The arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends towards jus­tice.”  The anniver­sary of Leo Frank’s par­don is teach­able moment and a reminder that the arc does not bend by itself – peo­ple striv­ing for equal­ity and jus­tice – even jus­tice, delayed – need to bend it.

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October 23, 2015 9

Plumbing the Depths: Were the Umpqua Shootings an Anti-Christian Hate Crime?

On Octo­ber 1, 26-year-old stu­dent Christo­pher Harper-Mercer walked into a class­room at Umpqua Com­mu­nity Col­lege in south­west Ore­gon and opened fire, killing nine peo­ple and wound­ing another nine before killing him­self after law enforce­ment arrived and wounded him.christopher-harper-mercer-hate-crime-shooting

In the weeks since the shoot­ing, Harper-Mercer’s moti­va­tion has remained largely a mys­tery, the sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion and alle­ga­tions, thanks to the lim­ited, often ambigu­ous infor­ma­tion avail­able on the shooter.

The issue most often raised about the shoot­ings is whether they con­sti­tute an anti-Christian or anti-religious hate crime.  Pro­po­nents of this the­ory note that Harper-Mercer asked sev­eral of his vic­tims about their reli­gion before shoot­ing them, and that his lim­ited on-line foot­print sug­gests a dis­dain for orga­nized reli­gion.  On the other hand, it turns out, Harper-Mercer was angry about a great many things, some clearly more so than reli­gion.  He also had a his­tory of men­tal health and behav­ioral issues.

What moti­vated the shooter?  It seems pos­si­ble that a clear-cut answer will never emerge.  But an analy­sis of what is known so far about Harper-Mercer and the shoot­ings may offer a slightly clearer pic­ture of what hap­pened that day—and why.

Acquain­tances of Harper-Mercer inter­viewed since the shoot­ing have not revealed much about his atti­tudes towards reli­gion.  But on an on-line dat­ing pro­file, Harper-Mercer chose the options “not reli­gious” and “not reli­gious but spir­i­tual” to describe him­self.  As a prospec­tive match, he sought some­one pagan, Wic­can, or “not reli­gious, but spir­i­tual.”  On the same site, he joined groups called “doesn’t like orga­nized reli­gion,” “mag­ick and occult,” and the “left-hand path,” another occult ref­er­ence.  How­ever, to date no on-line anti-Christian or anti-religious rhetoric by Harper-Mercer has been discovered.

Accord­ing to the accounts of wit­nesses, on the day of the shoot­ing itself, Harper-Mercer walked late into his writ­ing class and fired a gun, appar­ently to get people’s atten­tion.  He fatally shot the instruc­tor, Lawrence Levine, after telling him, accord­ing to the account of one wit­ness, “I’ve been wait­ing to do this for a really long time.”

Harper-Mercer than ordered the 15 or so stu­dents onto the floor.  Accord­ing to one sur­vivor, Mathew Down­ing, he “fired a cou­ple of shots into the crowd of stu­dents in the cen­ter.”  He sub­se­quently ordered sev­eral stu­dents to stand, one at a time, and asked about their reli­gion, then shot them.  For exam­ple, the mother of one vic­tim told reporters that Harper-Mercer asked her daugh­ter, Cheyeanne Fitzger­ald, about her reli­gion, shoot­ing her in the back when she didn’t answer.

The sis­ter of one Umpqua stu­dent told NBC News shortly after the attack that Harper-Mercer asked his poten­tial vic­tims if they were Chris­t­ian.  If they said yes, he would shoot them in the head.  How­ever, if they said some­thing else, or noth­ing, “they were shot else­where in the body, usu­ally the leg.”  This state­ment was widely repeated on the Inter­net.  How­ever, the stu­dent, J. J. Vic­ari, was not actu­ally in the shooter’s class­room at the time, but in another class­room in that build­ing.  When NBC sub­se­quently inter­viewed Vic­ari him­self, he said that he never heard Harper-Mercer ask about religion—or even heard his voice at all.

The most frequently-repeated account came from the father of vic­tim Anas­ta­sia Boy­lan.  Her father told the media that Harper-Mercer asked peo­ple if they were Chris­t­ian, then said “Good, because you’re a Chris­t­ian, you’re going to see God in just about one sec­ond,” killing peo­ple who had iden­ti­fied them­selves as Christians.

How­ever, when Anas­ta­sia Boy­lan her­self was sub­se­quently inter­viewed by Good Morn­ing Amer­ica, her account was dif­fer­ent:  “He had us get up, one by one, and asked us what our reli­gions were.  The shooter said [vic­tims] would only feel pain for a cou­ple of sec­onds, and that [they] would be with God soon.  And then he shot them.”  Boylan’s descrip­tion makes it seem as if Harper-Mercer was actu­ally engag­ing in some sort of bizarre attempt to calm or give solace to the peo­ple he was about to mur­der.  He also told the stu­dents he would be join­ing them in death in just a lit­tle while.

Other sur­viv­ing wit­nesses also ques­tioned whether Harper-Mercer was “tar­get­ing Chris­tians.” Rand McGowan said, “He didn’t, really, honestly…Obviously, he was ask­ing what reli­gion, but he wasn’t really just tar­get­ing.  He was kind of just say­ing, ‘Oh, since you have a God, you’ll be join­ing him in a lit­tle bit.’  It wasn’t really like, ‘I’m tar­get­ing you and I’m going to kill you.’”

Tracy Heu, another sur­vivor, recalled that Harper-Mercer told vic­tims, “I’m going to send you to God.  You’re going to see God.”  How­ever, she did not think that Chris­tian­ity or reli­gion were a motive, not­ing that he shot peo­ple regard­less of how they responded to his ques­tion about religion.

It is not clear how many stu­dents Harper-Mercer asked about their reli­gion.  How­ever, it is clear from Downing’s detailed writ­ten account that a num­ber of stu­dents were shot or shot at with­out hav­ing been asked any­thing about their religion.

Harper-Mercer killed or wounded most of the stu­dents in the class­room (shoot­ing one vic­tim at least five times), regard­less of faith.  How­ever, one stu­dent he spared, giv­ing him an enve­lope for police that allegedly included a flash drive and doc­u­ments, includ­ing what has been described as a “manifesto.”

Weeks after the shoot­ings, author­i­ties still have not yet released any of the con­tents of this enve­lope.  How­ever, offi­cers or oth­ers with appar­ent access have leaked descrip­tions and excerpts of its con­tents to the media.  The doc­u­ment allegedly con­tains racist lan­guage, though race does not seem to have been a motive for the attack (and Harper-Mercer was from a multi-racial fam­ily).  It also allegedly con­tains lan­guage about his sex­ual frustrations—which echoes com­ments Harper-Mercer made on-line prior to the shoot­ings.  One anony­mous source told Peo­ple Mag­a­zine that the shooter wrote, “I am going to die friend­less, girl­friend­less, and a vir­gin.”  The source also said that the man­i­festo had “666” writ­ten on it and that Harper-Mercer wanted “to serve darkness”—characterizing the attack as “strictly for Satanic purposes.”

How­ever, in a sub­se­quent Peo­ple arti­cle, an appar­ently dif­fer­ent anony­mous source allegedly read parts of the man­i­festo to reporters, telling the mag­a­zine that the man­i­festo chron­i­cled Harper-Mercer’s life and his frus­tra­tions:  “no job, no life, no suc­cess.”  Accord­ing to this source, Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote, “I was hated ever since I arrived in the world.  I was always under attack.  I’ve always been the most hated per­son in the world.”

Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote in the man­i­festo about pre­vi­ous mass killers (as he did on-line, prior to the attack), claim­ing that they too had been denied every­thing they deserved and wanted.  This source quotes Harper-Mercer mak­ing ref­er­ences about demons and Hell, though the ref­er­ences sound as though they may have been more metaphor­i­cal than actu­ally Satanic.  How­ever, with­out being able to see the actual lan­guage in its true con­text, it is hard to know for sure.

So was Harper-Mercer’s deadly attack a hate crime?  Cer­tainly, Harper-Mercer was capa­ble of hatred.  The evi­dence sug­gests that he was a supremely dis­turbed and alien­ated young man, frus­trated by vir­tu­ally all aspects of his life, from being kicked out of the mil­i­tary, to being placed on aca­d­e­mic pro­ba­tion, to being unable to form con­nec­tions with other peo­ple, espe­cially women.

Hate and resent­ment, Harper-Mercer thus had in full mea­sure. But anger alone does not define a hate crime.  Was his attack directed against Chris­tians or against peo­ple with reli­gious beliefs?  The evi­dence that has so far emerged to sup­port such a propo­si­tion is not very strong.  Harper-Mercer appears to have stored up anger against soci­ety in general—and when he unleashed his deadly fury, he spared nei­ther Chris­t­ian nor non-Christian, nei­ther the reli­gious nor the agnostic.

It may well have been the act of shoot­ing and killing peo­ple, rather than shoot­ing any­one in par­tic­u­lar, that was most impor­tant to Harper-Mercer.  And while new infor­ma­tion could prompt a re-examination of the entire event, it seems quite pos­si­ble that pro­found alien­ation and resent­ment, rather than ani­mus directed specif­i­cally at Chris­tians or the reli­gious, was the most impor­tant moti­va­tion in Harper-Mercer’s mur­der­ous rampage.

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September 1, 2015 0

Deadly Violence, Plots Mark Right-Wing Extremist Courtroom Dramas

Judges and juries in Kansas, Cal­i­for­nia and Geor­gia have ruled in a trio of impor­tant crim­i­nal cases involv­ing white suprema­cists, anti-government sov­er­eign cit­i­zens, and mili­tia groups who engaged in vio­lence or conspiracies.

Brent Douglas Cole

Brent Dou­glas Cole

On Mon­day, August 31, a jury in Olathe, Kansas, con­victed long-time white suprema­cist Fra­zier Glenn Miller (also known as Fra­zier Glenn Cross) on cap­i­tal mur­der, attempted mur­der, assault and weapons charges for his 2014 shoot­ing attack that killed three at Jew­ish insti­tu­tions in the Kansas City sub­urb of Over­land Park.

Miller, who defended him­self, attempted to argue dur­ing his trial that he was jus­ti­fied in killing Jews, because they were com­mit­ting “geno­cide” against white peo­ple. After the jury read its ver­dict, Miller shouted “Sieg Heil,” while giv­ing a Nazi salute.

In fed­eral court in Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia, mean­while, another extrem­ist learned of his fate. Brent Dou­glas Cole, an adher­ent of the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment, received a 29-year, seven-month sen­tence for his role in a shootout in 2014. Sov­er­eign cit­i­zens believe that the gov­ern­ment is ille­git­i­mate, because a con­spir­acy long ago sub­verted the orig­i­nal gov­ern­ment and replaced it with a tyran­ni­cal one, and that it has no author­ity over them.

In June 214, a Bureau of Land Man­age­ment ranger dis­cov­ered Cole had set up a camp­site on pub­lic land and had a motor­cy­cle at the camp­site that had been reported stolen. When the ranger and a Cal­i­for­nia High­way Patrol offi­cer attempted to impound that motor­cy­cle, as well as one with expired tags, Cole con­fronted the offi­cers. When one attempted to place hand­cuffs on Cole, the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen opened fire on the offi­cers, injur­ing both of them, before sub­se­quently giv­ing him­self up. He was con­victed in Feb­ru­ary 2015 of assault on a fed­eral offi­cer which inflicted bod­ily injury and other charges.

Finally, a fed­eral judge in Atlanta, Geor­gia, sen­tenced three mem­bers of a mili­tia group to prison after they pleaded guilty to con­spir­acy to use weapons of mass destruc­tion. Brian Can­non, Terry Peace and Cory Williamson were mem­bers of a north Geor­gia mili­tia cell that plot­ted ter­ror­ist attacks against the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency and other gov­ern­ment tar­gets, hop­ing that the gov­ern­ment would over-react and, in turn, cause mili­tia groups around the coun­try to rise up in arms.

After an asso­ciate of the three men alerted the FBI to the plot­ters’ inten­tions, the FBI set up a sting oper­a­tion. After Peace told the infor­mant that he needed ther­mite charges and pipe bombs, the infor­mant offered to get the explo­sives for him. In Feb­ru­ary 2014, FBI agents arrested the trio of mili­ti­a­men as the received the (inert) explo­sive devices from the infor­mant. Their would-be rev­o­lu­tion was thwarted.

In many respects, these three inci­dents col­lec­tively high­light the major dan­gers com­ing from the extreme right in the 21st Cen­tury. Miller engaged in a deadly attack directed against Jews, a per­ceived “racial enemy.” The shoot­ing spree pre­saged the even more deadly attack against African-Americans by Dylann Storm Roof in June 2015. Cole engaged in unplanned, spon­ta­neous vio­lence against law enforce­ment officers—one of the major threats posed by the sov­er­eign cit­i­zen move­ment. And the mili­ti­a­men in North Geor­gia engaged in a con­spir­acy to attack gov­ern­ment tar­gets; just the lat­est in a long series of such plots and con­spir­a­cies stem­ming from the mili­tia movement.

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