AG to open hate crime unit amid surge in Michigan extremist groups

White nationalists clash with counter-demonstrators before the start of a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, who popularized the term 'alt-right', at Michigan State University on March 5, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. | Scott Olson, Getty Images

Attorney General Dana Nessel said Friday she will form a hate crime unit within her office after the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a new report showing 31 active hate groups in Michigan.

Dana Nessel after a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Nationwide, more than 1,000 hate groups are now active, according to a report released by the civil rights group this week. The number has risen to a record high as right-wing ideology also fuels a surge in hate-related violence, according to a separate report from the Anti-Defamation League.

The ADL report found rising far-right extremism related to a majority of hate-related killings in 2018. That includes the killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.

In Michigan, the number of hate groups also has increased from 15 in 2014 to 31 in 2018, according to the SPLC.

“Hate cannot continue to flourish in our state,” Nessel said in a statement. “I have seen the appalling, often fatal results of hate when it is acted upon. That is why I am establishing a hate-crimes unit in my office — to fight against hate crimes and the many hate groups which have been allowed to proliferate in our state.”

Nessel will hire a full-time prosecutor and an investigator to work exclusively on finding and prosecuting hate crimes, said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Southern Poverty Law Center

FBI data shows 456 hate crimes in Michigan in 2017, down from a nine-year high of 617 in 2012, according to the ADL. That includes 311 race-related hate crimes in 2017 and 29 anti-Semitic hate crimes, the same data set showed.

Anti-Semitic hate crimes have spiked again since 2015, FBI data shows.

Across the country, hate crimes against Jews reported to the FBI in 2017 rose by more than a third since 2016, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported.

The SPLC report listed the black-nationalist Nation of Islam — which also is active in Michigan — as a hate group.

Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) Director Agustin Arbulu called the surge in hate groups “a troubling trend,” in a statement.

MDCR Executive Director Agustin Arbulu listens to Attorney General Dana Nessel | Ken Coleman

“These groups range in the ideological extremes from anti-Muslim, to anti-LGBT to black nationalist and white nationalists,” he said. “Particularly of concern, over one half of the identified groups are located east of US-23 between Flint and Ann Arbor.”

In its study, the SPLC said that President Donald Trump “has opened the White House doors to extremism, not only consulting with hate groups on policies that erode our country’s civil rights protections, but also enabling the infiltration of extremist ideas into the administration’s rhetoric and agenda. Once relegated to the fringes, the radical right now has a toehold in the White House.”

Donald Trump | Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Much of the growth in hate groups across the country relates to an organization founded by Vice Media and Vice Magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes, the SPLC report said. McInnes’ group — the Proud Boys — has spread to 44 chapters in 31 states.

The report described the Proud Boys as “an all-male hate group” that often serves as “an early waypoint for extremists who later join overtly white supremacist organizations.”

McInnes has taken the SPLC to court over the hate-group classification.

At least 40 people in the U.S. and Canada were killed by people attracted to “far right ideologies” or philosophies “that are cornerstones of the alt-right,” according to the SPLC report.

A 2018 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville left one protester dead after a man plowed his car into a crowd of people. He was convicted of first-degree murder and a jury recommended that he serve life plus 419 years in prison.

Charlottesville, Va., “Unite the Right” rally | Wikimedia Commons

There have been a number of other white nationalist events and demonstrations across the country. Before white nationalist leader Richard Spencer spoke at Michigan State University in March 2018, there were clashes between his supporters and counter-demonstrators.

Last year was “a particularly active year for right-wing extremist murders: Every single extremist killing — from Pittsburgh to Parkland — had a link to right-wing extremism,” according to the ADL.

The ADL report called 2018 “the fourth-deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970.”

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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