By Mukhtar Ibrahim, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Wisconsin has not been immune to the national increase in hate and bias-related acts, nor has it escaped the growth in the number of hate groups nationally.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based nonprofit which tracks hate crimes and hate groups nationwide, said it has seen a rise in the number of hate groups operating in the country for the second consecutive year, up from 892 in 2015 to 917 in 2016. Nine of them operate in Wisconsin. (For brief descriptions of those nine, click here.)
Wisconsin has not seen any high-level protests like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA in August, in which one protester was run down and killed by a white supremacist. But the state is not immune to hate and bias events, ranging from merely disturbing to deadly.
A recent example: A white elderly patient in Ozaukee County, who was suffering from a life-threatening infection, asked a female doctor whom he had not previously met, “What’s that thing on your head?” After she informed him it’s called a hijab and she wore it because she is a Muslim, he ordered her out of the examining room.
The doctor, who asked that her name not be used, was astounded. She has been practicing in hospitals in the Milwaukee area for the past eight years. She said the incident in February was the first time a patient had refused treatment because of her religion.
“Will I say that I have never had the looks, the angry and dislike looks? Of course I did,” the doctor said. “But none that went as far as, ‘Get out of the room. I don’t want you to care for me.’”
Reports of anti-Semitic incidents in Wisconsin have jumped at an alarming pace, according to Elana Kahn, director the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. She has been collecting information about such incidents in the state for the past seven years and said she is stunned by the increase in 2017.
“I have never had so many reports (about anti-Semitism) as I have had in the last couple months,” she said. “There’s more fear in our community now than there was even a year ago.”
In March, a crime that police believe was racially motivated occurred in Junction City, a small community in central Wisconsin’s Portage County. Henry Kaminski, 80, fired a gun in the direction of a Hmong neighbor who was working in her garden because he thought the Hmong were taking over Junction City, according to news reports.
The National Picture
Those who study hate and bias-related acts say the incidents are part of a nationwide trend that has created tension in communities, schools and workplaces.
“The Trump presidency has emboldened a lot of these groups,” said Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist from Milwaukee who now works to heal racial divisions through his group, Serve 2 Unite. “Having an administration that is blatantly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim is basically enacting policies that are in line with white supremacy ideology.”
Experts say while white supremacist individuals or groups may have divergent interests, many of them share a common agenda: They see the increasing diversity in the United States as a threat to their race. And the roots of their fear stretch years before the election of Donald Trump.
“(Former President Barack) Obama in a way was a physical representation of our changing demographics,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the SPLC. “The rise in hate groups started in 2000, and that’s the year when the census said white people will become a minority in 2040s.”
And Trump supporters, such as National Review Online contributing editor Deroy Murdock, contend that tying Trump to white supremacy is no more than a cynical political ploy.
“The ‘Donald Trump = David Duke’ narrative is a bright, shining, left-wing lie,” Murdock wrote in a September column, referring to the former Ku Klux Klan leader. “It’s designed to make Trump radioactive, sandbag his agenda, and terrify black voters so they’ll stampede the polls and save the Democrats’ bacon in November 2018. The Left deserves universal scorn for deploying such political plutonium.”
Nonetheless, the SPLC attributes the current spurt of hate group growth to the rise of Trump and his inflammatory rhetoric during the presidential campaign.
“He played into racist instincts,” Beirich said. “They (white supremacist groups) view Trump as a good political force for their beliefs.”
Alix Olson, a retired Madison Police Department detective who founded the organization Seeking Tolerance and Justice Over Hate, said that Trump’s election has emboldened hate groups “who felt before that they didn’t have a voice.”
“This administration has given carte blanche to white supremacy,” Olson said. “Everything is starting to become undone to the detriment of people who have way less power than white people do.”
State home to neo-Nazis, anti-gay groups
Among the nine hate groups in Wisconsin identified by the SPLC are the White Boy Society, a “biker brotherhood” that aims to protect the heritage of white people; Pilgrims Covenant Church, which preaches against gays, lesbians and transgender people; Nation of Islam, a black separatist organization whose inclusion in the list is, the center acknowledges, controversial; and White Devil Social Club, which the SPLC says fits the definition of neo-Nazi groups, which hate Jews, love Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Like other groups reached for this report, the Nation of Islam rejected the “hate” label. It pointed to a column published by a New York-based African-American news website that described Nation of Islam as a “religious group with an impeccable track record of good works and service, particularly to the black community and other oppressed and marginalized communities throughout the country.”
Another organization, the National Socialist Movement, seeks to “defend our future from the genocide being pushed to wipe out the white race with race mixing,” according to Will Docks, the leader of the movement’s Wisconsin branch, which unsuccessfully sought to organize a rally in Eau Claire in September.
The SPLC says the National Socialist Movement is “one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States.”
The overall number of hate groups in Wisconsin and their members and activities are hard to track because some of these organizations operate without centralized leadership, fall apart quickly and function entirely online.
No reliable data
There are no reliable data on the number or rate of hate crimes in the United States, according to the investigative news nonprofit ProPublica. The organization has collected several dozen self-reports of alleged incidents of hate and bias in Wisconsin — most of them unconfirmed — since November, 2016 when it began soliciting tips as part of its Documenting Hate project. (The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is among more than 100 news outlets and other groups participating in the project.)
FBI figures show just eight anti-Jewish hate crimes in Wisconsin in 2016. That same year the Milwaukee Jewish Federation collected 50 anti-Semitism reports, some of which do not rise to the level of criminal behavior. These reports include harassment or threats, written and verbal expressions or vandalism, such as the swastikas that were spray-painted on a memorial near the Gates of Heaven synagogue in Madison’s James Madison Park last September.
The vandalism came hours before the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
“It was obviously a targeted attack meant to intimidate a community,” Olson said, “and knowing that swastikas do to the Jewish community what Confederate flags do to the African-American community.”
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The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Mukhtar Ibrahim joined the Center as an investigative reporting fellow through the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, he has written about terrorism, social and immigrant issues for BuzzFeed News, Minnesota Public Radio News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Al Jazeera.