Michigan Civil Rights Dept. to start hate, bias database

Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after the October 2018 shooting | Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf photo, Flickr

Spurred, in part, by the October 2018 killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the state Department of Civil Rights will begin tracking hate-related harassment incidents, the MCDR director said Tuesday.

Tree of Life Synagogue memorials, October 2018 | Wikimedia Commons

“Pittsburgh, I think, profoundly affected me,” said MDCR Director Agustin Arbulu, who described himself as both Latino and Jewish.

“I remember, I was at a movie — I can remember that day. And I came out, and my phone was blowing up and I remember talking to the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] … then I thought: We’ve got to do more. And we’ve got to be much more vigilant, and we’ve got to create these partnerships and be more intentional and focus on it,” he said.

Within the next three months, the department will hire a part-time staffer to jumpstart and manage a new database that will compile news of harassment incidents motivated by racism and prejudice against religious groups and LGBTQ residents.

The staffer will compile data, news and harassment complaints as it comes to the department and from organizations that already track such incidents, such as the ADL. The group tracked 69 instances of hate, extremism, anti-Semitism or terrorism in Michigan from 2017 to 2018, as the Advance reported last week.

Southern Poverty Law Center

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of hate groups in Michigan rose by 6 percent, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC documented a longer surge in Michigan hate groups from 15 in 2014 to 31 in 2018.

On the heels of those reports, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced plans on Friday to open a dedicated hate crime unit.

Up until now, the MDCR has not had the money to pay a dedicated part-time staffer to manage a database of complaints or news of such incidents, said Arbulu.

Reorganization within the department freed up funds. Arbulu has already interviewing candidates and the new staffer will be announced in the coming months.

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

Previously, the department briefly tracked such incidents for three months, following the election of now-President Donald Trump in 2016. Now there’s a new receptivity from the attorney general’s office to investigate hate-related crimes.

ADL Michigan Director Carolyn Normandin said anti-Semitism has been on the rise in Michigan, in addition to across the U.S. and abroad.

The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Michigan has increased nearly five-fold since 2015, when the ADL recorded six such incidents. The number spiked to 28 in 2017.

“It’s not getting any better, I’ll tell you that much,” Normandin said.

In September, anti-Semitic fliers were distributed outside of the First United Methodist Church in Ferndale and in Southfield and Detroit, according to the ADL. The fliers were taped to church entrances.

Flier found in Old Town in Lansing | photo by Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Facebook

Last week, anti-immigrant posters from a white supremacist group were found in the Old Town neighborhood of Lansing.

The ADL documented 457 white supremacist “propaganda distributions” across the country since January, 2018. A separate ADL report said every extremist-related killing in 2018 was also motivated by extreme, right-wing ideology.

“We know that white supremacy and right-wing extremists are the biggest threat to our communities. [They are] by far, the largest perpetrator of fatal incidents,” Normandin said.

Arbulu said he believes the shift is related to what he calls the “changing face of America” — the shift in demographics as the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse.

“Think just about our country — there it was in 1776 and where it is in 2019,” the department director said. “People saying, ‘Jesus, I’d like to return to the old days.’ What does that mean? You want to return it to when it was white, when you have ‘Leave it to Beaver?’ Is that what they’re calling for? Or you want to give credence or support to the confederate flag, for what it stood?

Confederate flag | Wikimedia Commons

“I think what’s going on here — the face of America is changing, and it’s changing faster than we think. And with change, comes reflection of where you are in this community and uncertainty [of] how you fit into this world,” Arbulu continued.

“When one has been accustomed to be the dominant power or the dominant race [and then that changes], that I think scares people. And that allows extremists who say, ‘We want America for America.’ Well, what does America mean today? It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”

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.

1 COMMENT

  1. Here’s an idea for the state Civil Rights Department: Assist communities to establish or re-establish local human relations commissions. In Saginaw, ours died out about 20 years ago for both lack of citizen involvement and lack of funding. Such groups can be grassroots direct-effective in many ways.

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