Laguna Woods church shooting adds to history of hate, but hope isn’t lost – San Bernardino Sun

San Bernardino. Poway. El Paso. Atlanta. Buffalo.

And on May 15, in the lunch hall of a Presbyterian church favored by older Taiwanese Americans, Laguna Woods.

In recent years and days, each of these cities, as well as dozens of others, has been a backdrop for the highest of high-profile hate crimes; with some residents targeted for mass murder because of their religion, ethnicity or race.

Each crime was unique and shocking. And each victim was an individual who touched others in tangible ways.

But when looking at those and other incidents collectively, everybody from advocates to conservative law enforcement leaders sees the same hard truth:

Hate is having a moment.

Experts describe the current spike in the number of hate-driven conflicts – from events as big and horrific as mass killings to as personally intimidating as name-calling – as nothing short of a national crime wave.

“What happened in Laguna Woods is part of a bigger story right now,” said Brian Levin, who teaches criminal justice at Cal State San Bernardino and runs the independent Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

“It’s everywhere.”

Police crime scene tape wraps around the perimeter and a growing memorial at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, where one person was killed and five others were wounded, four of them critically, in a shooting at the church on Sunday, May 15, 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Hate is so top of mind that at the end of a May 16 news conference to outline what investigators believe happened in Laguna Woods – an attack in which officials say the alleged shooter targeted people based on their nationality – Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes offered this comment:

“This is a manifestation of the ugliest part of humanity in our country today. At some point, we have to put aside our differences and focus on our similarities,” Barnes said.

“Whether it was Poway, where the focus was religion. Or Buffalo, where it was race. Or national origin,” he added. “We’re not going to tolerate hate.”

Rare? Not rare

Statutes that define hate crimes, and agencies that track hate crime trends, are relatively new. But hate crime, even if it wasn’t always legally labeled as such, is as old as America itself.

The Jim Crow South relied on lynching and police brutality against Black Americans to maintain White control of commerce and politics. Bounties offered by territories and federal officials were paid for the killing of American Indians. Asians, Jews, Latinos, the LGBTQ community – all have been targeted for violence, officially or unofficially, at some point.

So while current data on hate crime shows a spike from the recent past, it also reflects a world that’s much less hate-filled than many previous eras.

Still, some experts also suggest a new era may be upon us.

Consider: Hate crime in the nation’s 10 biggest cities surged 24% during the first quarter of this year when compared with the first quarter of 2021, according to data collected by Levin’s group, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.

This year’s early jump comes after a 39% increase, year-over-year reported in 2021 and that rise came after a 13% jump in 2020. Overall, in the first two years of the pandemic (and, yes, experts see a connection) hate crime in big cities soared by 54%. A crime that 20 years ago was rarely reported – a physical or verbal assault aimed at a person because of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation – has become closer to routine.

“It promotes fear. That’s typically a goal,” said Nikki Singh, senior manager of policy and advocacy for the Sikh Coalition, which represents a group – Sikh Americans – who have been victims of some of the highest-profile hate crimes in recent American history.

In 2012, seven people were killed and four others injured when a White supremacist opened fire inside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. And in 2001, two days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a Sikh business owner was shot dead outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, by a White man who believed he was killing a Muslim. That killing was the first known hate-based murder in the wake of 9/11.

“Sikhs have been among the most targeted groups,” Singh said. “And if we’re just looking at the data, it’s showing that hate remains a pressing threat to our community.”

And to many others.

Though the current hate crime wave mostly holds to historic norms – FBI data shows Black Americans continue to be targeted for hate-driven violence, typically by White Americans, more than any other group – it isn’t driven by a surge of specific haters targeting a specific group of victims.

In New York, the people most likely to report being victimized by a hate crime are Jewish. In Chicago, it’s gay men. In Las Vegas (not one of the 10 biggest cities, but tracked in FBI data) the group most likely to be victims of hate crime are White.

The data does suggest one big shift from historic norms: a huge increase in violence aimed at Asian Americans. FBI data shows anti-Asian hate crimes nationally more than tripled over the past two years.

“It’s a lot to take in,” said Cal State San Bernardino’s Levin. “The numbers show the same kind of thing, if not always at the same level, all over the country.”

Old hate, new hate

The two most notable hate crimes committed so far this month – the killings of 10 Black Americans in Buffalo and the killing of one Taiwanese American man during a shooting spree in Laguna Woods – hint at the increasingly random nature of hate as a catalyst for violent crime.

They also show a couple reasons why hate crime is surging.

In Buffalo, the event seems to reflect the long-standing pattern of American hate, a White man allegedly targeting Black Americans for death.

Flowers and candles lay outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Flowers and candles lay outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

And, according to news accounts, the alleged shooter was part of a network of people who used social media to discuss violence against Black people. Levin and other hate experts say that pattern isn’t rare. The terror-related massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino in 2015 and the mass shootings that in 2019 killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, also included shooters who got inspiration, tactical ideas or approval online.

“The Buffalo fella fell down a rabbit hole, into the most vile segment of the Internet,” said Levin.

In Levin’s view, the link between online chatter and hate-crime behavior is powerful. Like-minded people expressing ideas together, often with more encouragement than debate, can produce extreme – sometimes violent – rhetoric, Levin said. And violent rhetoric, he added, is sometimes a precursor to violent behavior.

“People have a First Amendment right to right to express non-threatening yet thoroughly offensive hate speech,” Levin said. “But those same people are not entitled to use social media discourse to foment violence.”

But the Internet apparently isn’t key to the Laguna Woods shooting. Instead, the known details about that event – in which the alleged shooter also brought materials (bombs and extra ammunition) to wage a bigger attack – suggest a comparatively international strain of hate crime: a foreign-born American acting out on long-simmering anger at other foreign-born Americans.

“That’s a Southern California kind of thing,” Levin said, noting that Census data shows Los Angeles and Riverside counties with more foreign-born residents than all but a few other big American communities.

But Levin, and others, note that it’s rare for foreign-born people to commit hate crimes. Instead, it’s increasingly common for people born in other countries to be victims. The idea that White America is being changed – or replaced – by foreign-born people is part of the new rise in hate, a theory reportedly connected to the Buffalo massacre.

“The far right has a mythology about a great battle and replacement,” Levin said.

“That puts certain groups at higher risk than others, including groups that are common in Southern California.”

Why now?

The current rise in hate crimes is an accelerated version of what began around 2015, when former President Donald Trump began to campaign for president by speaking stridently against Muslims, Mexican immigrants and others.

At the time, many experts linked Trump’s use of racially charged rhetoric with a rise in hate crime. And data shows his use of the terms anti-Asian terms in conjunction with the coronavirus in early 2020 helped fuel a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Then April 2020 – a month when Trump used such a term in a news conference – was the single biggest month for anti-Asian hate crime since at least 1991, according to FBI data.

“You can pin it to the words,” Levin said.

“But you can also pin it to events,” he added. “Like, the days when hospitalizations rose were also the days when the most (anti-Asian hate crimes) were reported.”

And whatever link that may have existed didn’t end when Trump left office. In fact, hate crime of all type has shot up at a time when Trump wasn’t giving news conferences and wasn’t allowed to issue statements on Twitter.

Experts say the problem isn’t just Trump’s words – or the words of many others who now echo racially charged themes in media or politics – but the people who applaud them.

“A growing number of empirical studies substantiate the idea that high-profile political speech and government policies towards racial minority groups can influence the levels of hate crimes committed against those groups,” Sherin Sinnar, a law professor at Stanford University who studies hate crime, said last week in a blog.

“But the relationship between government rhetoric or policies and hate crimes can be complicated. … We should be deeply concerned about the normalization of not only ideas like the ‘great replacement,’ but also the willingness to use political violence in our culture.”

Experts are divided on how much more violence we’ll see.

“The game’s not over,” Levin said. “Right now, the haters, are punching out of their weight class. But they won’t forever. It’s just a tough first half.”

Singh, of the Sikh Coalition, said she’s optimistic that the violence won’t continue; that hate might be cresting.

She said the groups who have traditionally been targeted for hate crime now are also the loudest advocates for new laws – and new resistance – to the fear that hate crime engenders.

“The Sikh community has a term, Chardi Kala, which means ‘living in eternal optimism,’” Singh said.

“It also means not giving in to victim identity,” she added. “That’s the future I see.”

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