This past summer residents of West Champaign awoke to find their neighborhoods had been leafletted with an insulting anti-immigrant flyer bearing the imprint of the New Jersey European Heritage Association (NJEHA), a group designated as a white nationalist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. These weren’t a few scattered copies, but hundreds of flyers packaged in ziplocked bags weighted down with pebbles to keep them from blowing away. The leaflet characterized all immigrants as “criminal invaders,” and provided a phone number it claimed was to ICE deportations, as well as the web address for the NJEHA. One neighbor gathered more than seventy for the trash and another consigned a bundle to a backyard firepit, but in the weeks that followed more appeared in front yards, tucked inside the pockets of merchandise apparel at stores, or arranged among the produce in grocery stores.
Rather than being an anomaly, the strange appearance of leaflets linked to an out of state hate group puts CU right in the national zeitgeist. Since 2015 there has been a surge in right-wing, extremist groups and hate incidents (maligning a category of people) across the country, and it is increasingly common to find cross-pollination in their literature, techniques and ideologies. We no longer live in an age of a single dominant organization like the KKK, but the multiplicity of smaller organizations, loosely connected in terms of formal structure but profoundly interdependent in their social media networks and philosophical orientations, may be a more dangerous situation. This summer the FBI publicly noted that domestic right-wing extremist groups posed a critical national security threat, and as early as 2015 the FBI issued a classified report warning that far-right militia sympathizers posed a danger even within US police forces. These sympathies, it noted, were difficult to track precisely because there were so many separate groups that nevertheless shared common agendas.
What Happens to Hate Incident Reports in CU?
Given that the flyers distributed in Champaign in June and July were designed to prejudice readers and intimidate specific groups in keeping with the white nationalist ideology of the NJEHA, and more importantly, illustrated the presence of local sympathizers, it’s not surprising that several residents reported the flyers to local police. Unfortunately, police policy in Champaign and Urbana, as in other parts of the country, is that only hate incidents committed in conjunction with a crime are reported to the database shared with the FBI. Maurice Green of the Illinois Human Rights Office helpfully shared with me the requirements for monthly reporting from local law enforcement agencies, but repeated that if there is no crime (that is, no vandalism, or threat or action against a specific individual), there is no place in the current system to report the incident. The Illinois State Police Public Information Office not only confirmed that they had received no report on the leafletting incident, but also that there had been no hate crimes reported to the state database since 2015.
Problematic Statistics on Hate Incidents Mean Inadequate Information on Hate Groups
The two organizations that maintain the most comprehensive lists of hate incidents, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League, have both tracked the dramatic rise in hate groups and crimes over the past few years, but both acknowledge that even their databases woefully underestimate the true impact of this shift. The problem is that there is no official database collecting consistent data.
The FBI has maintained statistics on hate crimes since 1992, but the requirements for reporting differ by state. To be included in the FBI database the incident must meet the standard of a crime, have been filed in a formal police report, and be forwarded by the local law enforcement agency. In addition, states define “hate” differently; categories of hate such as against race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity might be legally defined in some states and not in others.
Even the FBI’s parent body, the Department of Justice (DOJ), recognizes the inaccuracies of the FBI records. The DOJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted through anonymous interviews, estimates that half of national hate incidents are not reported to local police. Once reported, local police departments often find the incident does not warrant designation as a crime, and do not record it. In 2018, 87 percent of agencies reported zero hate crimes to the FBI database, clearly inconsistent with the SPLC data and the DOJ survey.
Clearly there is a Glitch in the System.
How can communities create accurate records to monitor the rise of hate groups that use group intimidation as a strategy? Melissa Hendrian, a crime analyst for the Urbana Police Department (UPD), agreed that the current system was not satisfactory. The only two incidents that appeared in the UPD database were from several years ago. In one, a woman had her headscarf violently ripped from her head on an MTD bus; the second concerned a man who was verbally assaulted with racial epithets. In each case there was a victim willing to file a police report and a clear threat against an individual. The system, she noted, has no place to track something like leaflets, which can be considered protected free speech, or things like graffiti or posted material if there is no one to file a vandalism claim.
Thomas Yelich, Public Information Officer for the Champaign Police, expressed the same frustration. In fact, he noted, it would be great if some group in the community were able to keep local reports to better track changing patterns. He reiterated that anyone in the community who felt threatened should contact the department and file a report, but admitted that investigation often established that there was no specific crime that could be addressed.
In addition to contacting local police, the SPLC suggests individuals file a report with the SPLC using their anonymous online form. SPLC also suggests anyone concerned with a hate incident contact their regional FBI field office and elected officials, both local and federal, to help document the increased activism of extreme-right groups.
Just because there isn’t a crime to report doesn’t mean there isn’t something dangerous brewing. The SPLC is currently tracking over a thousand groups, and records a 55 percent increase in white nationalist groups since 2017. Leafletting, graffiti, and hate speech may not be illegal, but they normalize intimidation and dehumanization and open the door to possible violence. It’s time to take it more seriously.