Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has earned blowback from some right-wing critics over her new hate crimes unit, so they’re really going to love this: She unabashedly says that President Donald Trump is a big reason why these crimes have spiked.
“I think he is a huge factor,” she said last week at a small media roundtable. “I don’t think you can understate it.”
Trump, who had “more white-power support than any mainstream candidate in modern politics,” as Politico Magazine reported in October 2016, has called Mexicans “rapists” and women “pigs” and “dogs.” Nessel said that, increasingly, elected officials feel free to “just to be degrading to various different populations.
“There may have been undertones here and there over the course of many years, but certainly not coming from people that were elected officials in such high places. And I think what it did is it an emboldened people who had similar sentiments to be more vocal about it — and in many cases to act upon it,” she said. “And to feel self-righteous about their hateful sentiments.”
Nessel has tapped Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani as lead prosecutor in the unit and Special Agent David Dwyre has been named lead investigator.
“I felt as though we needed people in government to be a contrary voice, to be a voice of safety and security and protection,” she said. “… I just really wanted to utilize this position as chief law enforcement official in this state to send a message that we’re going to be protecting people in every community in this state.”
Nessel cites FBI data that there’s been about a 30 percent increase in hate crimes in Michigan between 2016 and 2017. The number of hate groups has increased from 15 in 2014 to 31 in 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Nationwide, more than 1,000 are active.
The SPLC agrees that Trump is a factor, writing in its latest report that he “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.”
A recent report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found rising far-right extremism related to a majority of hate-related killings in 2018. The group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism also has been critical of Trump in that regard.
Fear in Muslim, Jewish communities
For anyone paying attention during last year’s heated attorney general race between Nessel and former state House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), her recent actions shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The Democrat’s platform included establishing an AG hate crimes unit. In 2016, she had formed the LGBTQ nonprofit Fair Michigan and worked with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy on hate crimes for the group’s Justice Project.
Nessel said that the rise in extremism is causing “fear in communities all around the state.” She noted that she and several members of her staff attended the vigil this month at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn for the 50 people killed in the New Zealand mosque shootings.
“The Arab-American community, especially the Muslim community, they’re incredibly fearful,” Nessel said. “People are concerned all the time; people are afraid some days to send their kids to school; they’re afraid to pray at their mosque. And that’s just not the way we ought to be living in America.”
Nessel said she also went to a vigil at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year.
“There was palpable fear amongst the Jewish community. And I am a member of the Jewish community and I can’t remember a time in recent history where there was that concern, where people really looked both ways before they walked into temple — and, in some cases, I think maybe avoided going altogether,” she said. “Daily, you’d hear about bomb threats at the Jewish Community Center and things of that nature.”
Nessel added that “it’s America. Many of us think of it as the greatest country in the world. And if we’re going to live up to that, we need to make certain that all people who live here feel they are properly protected by their government.”
Nessel said in her experience, there is a “massive under-representation of reporting of hate crimes.
“I think they’re even more underreported than sexual assaults in some instances,” she added.
FBI data shows 456 hate crimes in Michigan in 2017, up from 399 in 2016 and 309 in 2015. That’s down from a nine-year high of 617 in 2012. That includes 311 race-related hate crimes in 2017 and 29 anti-Semitic hate crimes. Anti-Semitic hate crimes have spiked again since 2015, FBI data shows.
Since announcing the new unit, Nessel said the AG’s office has been flooded with “hundreds” of calls and emails. She said the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which has begun tracking hate crimes in a database for the first time since 2016, is “very supportive” of the attorney general’s new unit.
Nessel said she’s also met with the FBI, which supports the effort, and she believes the unit will work well with local police departments.
“If there’s resistance to it from law enforcement, I haven’t heard about it,” she said.
The attorney general notes that sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are covered in federal hate crimes statutes, but not state law. LGBTQ advocates — including Nessel at Fair Michigan — also have long pushed for those protections in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act barring housing and job discrimination.
“Obviously, my hope in regard to both the Ethnic Intimidation Act and Elliot Larsen is that we’ll see an expansion sometime in my lifetime,” she said.
Nessel was asked why hate crimes carry stiffer penalties, something critics say is unfair.
“The reason why that’s important is because, when you have crimes of hatred that are against a certain class of people, it really infects the entire community in terms of instilling fear in people in that community,” she said. “And so it has a different impact.”
Nessel draws from her experience as a former assistant Wayne County prosecutor. She said that most first hate offenses aren’t capital crimes, like homicides.
“Usually, it starts off with a rock through the window or a slap to somebody’s face or spraying a swastika on somebody’s garage door or burning a cross on their lawn,” she said.
“… What I found over the course of years of practicing law … is that when you treat those minor offenses more seriously in the very beginning, you have a better chance of preventing them from accelerating to more serious crimes,” she said.
Nessel said that the hate crime statute can allow for more extensive treatment for the offender, if necessary.
The Advance asked Nessel about the pushback from conservatives like Detroit News editorial page Editor Nolan Finley, who argued the new hate crimes unit could engage in “thought policing.”
Nessel said that she’s not going to be deterred from investigating and prosecuting crimes.
“If their intent is to intimidate me, it’s not going to be effective — it’s not going to stop me from going forward on this,” she said. “I’m sad that we’re at a time in our nation’s history where there would be any pushback in regard to the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
“Again, as the chief law enforcement officer this state, it is my duty — it is my obligation — to enforce the law,” the AG continued. “And this is a crime and it’s on the books. And I certainly intend to fulfill my obligation to all communities of people who are subjected to hate crimes and to ensure that we do everything we can in terms of investigating and prosecuting those cases.”
Nessel said that she’s been fiscally conservative with funding for the unit and hasn’t spent “one dime in addition to the money that was already coming in through general funds to this office.” She said the same goes for the conviction integrity unit and the auto insurance fraud unit.
In order to pay for these efforts, the department eliminated six “constituency service” positions under former Attorney General Bill Schuette, which Nessel said were essentially “political appointments” filled by non-attorneys.
Long before she ran for attorney general, Nessel wasn’t exactly on the right-wing’s Christmas card list. She was the lead attorney for a lesbian couple, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, who sued then-Gov. Rick Snyder the state of Michigan, challenging the ban on same-sex marriage.
That put Nessel on opposite sides with Schuette, who relished his role in defending the law, which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in 2015. Schuette was term-limited this year.
She told the Advance that said she had never considered running for office before her 2018 attorney general campaign. She was content running Fair Michigan and “just lov[ed] being a lawyer.” Then Trump was elected.
“That all changed in the 2016 elections,” she said. “And I felt as though that was the best way for me to make an impact to fight back against things that I thought were just an absolute miscarriage of justice, both in our state government, and also the federal government.”
The Advance asked Nessel if she felt that conservatives’ criticism of her is sharper because she is gay.
“You’d have to ask those people what their motivation is,” she said. “All I can say is, I ran on a platform of inclusion and protecting all communities in the state. And I intend to fulfill that commitment.”