During the recent presidential campaign and subsequent election of President Donald J. Trump, hate crimes, white supremacy and religious violence have permeated U.S. news.
Raymond Reyes, associate academic vice president and chief diversity officer at Gonzaga University, said hate crimes and white supremacy are nothing new in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, though there has been a recent uptick in them. Reyes moved to Spokane in 1974 and began work opposing Aryan Nation violence in the 1980s.
“It [racial violence] hasn’t just been prevalent this past year or the past few years with Black Lives Matter and what’s happened with law enforcement,” he said. “This has been going on for quite a while, particularly in Spokane, eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northeast Oregon.”
However, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) also reports more recent surges in hate crimes and groups nationwide. Its researchers cite various reasons for this and many are correlated to the White House. Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategic adviser, uses a “rebranding of white supremacy” absent of Klan robes and Nazi symbols for “public relations purposes,” according to SPLC. SPLC also claims that Trump contributes to White Supremacist sentiments through false statistics, including a Retweet claiming that African-Americans murdered 80 percent of white persons. The Tweet has since been removed.
In the first 34 days of Trump’s presidency, 1,094 bias incidents were reported and the highest count came on the first day after the election, according to SPLC. Hate groups are reaching historic highs; numbers jumped from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year. One of the largest increases was in anti-Muslim hate groups, which soared from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year. This is a 197 percent increase.
Many groups in Spokane, eastern Washington and northern Idaho perpetuate religious hatemongering. In Chattaroy, about 30 minutes away from Spokane, the anti-Muslim group Truth-In-Love Project is active. The anti-Muslim ACT for America is vocal in Spokane Valley and the anti-Muslim Pig Blood Bullets settles in Priest River, Idaho, an hour and a half away from Spokane.
The remaining areas in northern Idaho and eastern Washington are peppered with Christian Identity, Neo-Nazi, Skinhead and Holocaust denial groups. Hayden, Idaho, less than an hour away from Spokane, has been a hot spot for the White Supremacist group the KKK. In eastern Washington and northern Idaho, there are over 15 reported and active hate groups, according to SPLC’s hate map of the region.
The Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, a nonprofit primarily funded by local business leaders, works to oppose discrimination and hate groups in the region. It “supports federal, state and local laws that guarantee ‘due process of law’ and ‘equal protection of the law’ for all persons,” according to its website. The task force works with community groups like the NAACP and YWCA.
Almost two years ago, Reyes began working with Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, founding member of the 35-year old Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations Tony Stewart, and former City Councilman Dean Lynch to form the task force in 2016. It recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.
“There are a lot of human rights organizations in Spokane trying to do good work…but there doesn’t seem to be a central coordinating mechanism not to duplicate efforts but support people so they can be better at what they do,” Reyes said. “That’s where the task force comes in.”
Lynch said the task force board of directors’ diversity is one of its greatest assets. The board, which includes both Reyes and Lynch, is comprised of representatives from various faith and ethnic communities, and local governments across Spokane County. However, the task force lacks a representative from Spokane Valley.
“By our bylaws, we are one of the most diverse organizations in Spokane County in that we have representatives from many diverse populations and communities,” Lynch said. “We have a wide variety of ethnicities and local governments represented.”
However, a diverse group creates potential for conflict, Lynch said. For example, Knezovich recently vocalized support for Trump’s backing of law enforcement and blamed Barack Obama for the “hunting and assassination” of officers in recent years, according to a March 4 article from The Spokesman-Review. He also said that Trump tapped into America’s rejection of the “new normal.”
Lynch said that the majority of task force members do not share these views but the difference of opinion “helps it craft the best responses” to incidents in the community.
When hate and bias incidents occur in Spokane County, the task force utilizes its victim support committee and existing community resources.
“One of the [victim support] committee’s next steps is to evaluate what is available in the community,” Lynch said. “It is looking at what organizations are doing, what is missing and how we can focus together.”
The task force recently applied for a grant to provide locations that are probable hate crime targets, such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Family Outreach Center which was defaced November 2016, with better security systems, but did not receive it. In the future, members hope to work in tandem with other community organizations like the Spokane Interfaith Council to apply for more grants, Lynch said.
“We hope to look at grants and apply for them, and whenever appropriate, we would like to do that jointly,” he said. “We really want to support the existing organizations that are doing good work and fill in the gaps that might exist.”
The task force also tries to provide resources to minority communities, including more recent efforts to educate undocumented persons about their constitutional rights following Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration.
“Supporting and helping people deescalates the fear and makes them feel safe,” Reyes said.
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