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Hate in Appalachia

Faith Leaders Weigh in on WV ‘GOP Day’ Anti-Muslim Incident

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Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., listens as Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought testifies before the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, during a hearing on the fiscal year 2020 budget. Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

West Virginia Republican Party Day or “GOP Day” at the Capitol on Friday, March 1, took an abrupt turn when the display of a poster in the rotunda connecting Muslim Congresswoman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 led to one person resigning their position, leaving another injured following a physical altercation.

Omar responded to the display by tweeting, “No wonder why I am on the ‘Hitlist’ of a domestic terrorist and ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ is written on my local gas stations. Look no further, the GOP’s anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks in state capitols and no one is condemning them!”

The poster, allegedly set up with the blessing of members of the GOP, showed an image of the Twin Towers during the attacks, with the text “’Never forget – You said…” above an image of Rep. Omar, the first of two Muslim women to be voted into Congress. Underneath, it read “I am the proof – You have forgotten.” The woman who set up the poster was seen in a t-shirt representing ACT! For America a known anti-Muslim, pro-Trump organization.

“The image of the twin towers with congresswoman Omar was absolutely devastating,” Ibtesam Sue Barazi, vice president of the Islamic Association of West Virginia, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in an interview. “As you can see, I wear a hijab. Everywhere I go, I get stared at. We have a large community here in Charleston, and a lot of the women wear hijab or headcover. And so, therefore, wherever we go, we get stared at. Having that image associated with our headcover – that symbolizes our religion – is actually very devastating.”

The poster sparked a heated debate that spilled into the chamber of the House of Delegates. Irritated by the incident in the rotunda, Del. Mike Caputo (D-Marion) admitted to kicking open the chamber’s entrance, injuring the doorkeeper who held the door shut during the daily prayer and pledge of allegiance.

After meeting privately with the Republican caucus and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, Caputo has been removed from all of his committee assignments, including his positions on the Energy, Industry and Labor, and House Rules committees, for the rest of the legislative session.

“I admit I made a mistake from day one and I’ve apologized to everybody that I could absolutely apologize to,” Caputo told West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “There were a lot of things that happened this year that could have warranted some discipline, but obviously, for whatever reason, the Republican leadership has chosen now to go there. That’s his prerogative to do that. I will abide by his decision, but I’m not going to quit being a voice to the people in Marion County. I will continue to do that on the house floor for the next six days.”

However, many Democrats have referred to Caputo’s punishment as a possible double standard following the lack of response to Delegate Eric Porterfield’s remarks during this legislative session. Porterfield (R-Mercer) made many homophobic remarks, including comparing the LGBTQ+ community to the Ku Klux Klan and saying he would “see if [his kids] can swim” if they came out as gay. Despite receiving much backlash and many calls for his resignation, Porterfield has not faced the same consequences that Caputo has.

“We have disavowed those remarks. We’ve condemned them. We have distanced the House as far as we can distance the house from the content of those comments, and I’ll do it again right now,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting regarding Porterfield’s comments. “Those comments were inappropriate as far as I’m concerned and don’t represent proper civil discourse in a deliberative body, but they didn’t cause a physical injury. And a physical injury is the line that we’ve established that we will not cross.”

By the end of “GOP Day,” Sergeant at Arms Anne Lieberman submitted a letter of resignation to the House following allegations that she referred to all Muslims as “terrorists,” although she denies all allegations.

“There’s a fine difference between freedom of speech and hate speech,” Barazi said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “When your statement and your action and your words may result in somebody taking that upon themselves – as they did in the synagogue in Pittsburgh – and take a physical action against a person because we happen to wear a headcover or we happen to be of a dark skin or we have an accent, that is not a freedom of speech.”

This fine line has been a hotly discussed topic throughout Appalachia given recent hate crimes in the region. Rabbi Victor Urecki of B’Nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston has been very vocal against public hate speech in the local community, especially in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue shooting. He believes that rather than normalizing these attacks, people should instead “weaponize goodness”.

“Right now, in the legislature, we have a tendency to weaponize evil acts and try to take those things that doesn’t [sic] represent West Virginia and try to legislate those things,” Urecki said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Other faith leaders have spoken out too in favor of mindful tactics to quiet hate speech. Father Brian O’Donnell, director of the Catholic Conference of West Virginia, believes the best tactic to fight prejudice and bigotry is to better educate those outside of the Muslim community what those communities really look like.

“I think the more and more that the story of our Muslim American sisters and brothers are conveyed to people. I think this should be a priority among all the members of the faith community,” O’Donnell said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “…I think there has to be more of forcing people to take a hard look on what’s the real situation. It’s quite incredible to me that this visceral distrust and fear business keeps on being pumped out when you can’t find anything to justify it. It’s ridiculous.”

He also believes that no matter an individual’s personal beliefs, if they closely follow their scriptures, they’ll be able to defeat this “visceral distrust.”

“I love that people just study the facts and draw conclusions, but I would urge people to take a look at your scriptures,” O’Donnell said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “We’re all religions of the books here. If you read those scriptures, God wants us to take care of the stranger among us. Jesus Christ explicitly identifies himself with refugees and the stranger among us in the Christian scriptures.”

Barazi hopes that West Virginia’s government officials will begin to set a better example for the state’s residents.

“I would like to see our government leaders set an example for the rest of the community,” Barazi said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “They are in the people’s house. They represent the people. I like them to be leaders in all aspect of life, not just in setting up laws. The way they act is how the people follow them. If they act with dignity, compassion and love, and care towards everybody, treat everybody the same. Do not demonize the other. No matter what the other looks like or who they want to love. Treat them with kindness and dignity. That’s all we’re asking for. Treat us like a normal human being.”

Hate in Appalachia

As Charlottesville Murder Trial Begins, Data Shows Hate on the Rise in Appalachia

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In this courtroom sketch, James Alex Fields Jr., second from left, appears along with his attorneys, Denise Lunsford, left, and John Hill, front right, as Judge Richard E. Moore, top right, reads charges during jury selection in the trial of Fields in Charlottesville General District Court in Charlottesville, Va., Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. A court clerk is at top left. Photo: Izabel Zermani via AP

On August 12, 2017, 32-year-old Heather Heyer stood in a crowd of people who gathered to protest a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the outskirts of Appalachia.

At around 1:40 that afternoon, a car drove into the crowd, killing Heyer and injuring at least a dozen others.

The 21-year-old driver, James Alex Fields Jr., a white Ohio man, was charged with her murder and the injuries of those who had gathered to protest the white nationalist rally Fields had participated in the night before, on the campus of the University of Virginia, and the larger rally scheduled to take place in a city park that afternoon.

Fields’ state trial began last week in Charlottesville with jury selection and opening statements, during which his attorney didn’t deny that Fields drove his car into the crowd, but said Fields feared for his own safety and believed he was acting in self-defense. If found guilty, Fields could spend the rest of his life in prison.

In addition to the state charges, though, Fields was charged in a federal indictment with several hate crimes. A guilty verdict for the federal crimes could mean a death sentence.

Artist Sam Welty creates a chalk mural of Heather Heyer during her memorial service Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va. Heyer was killed Saturday, when a car rammed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally. Photo: Julia Rendleman/AP Photo

Heyer’s 2017 murder was one of 193 hate crimes committed in Virginia in 2017, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, up from 122 the year before.

Virginia isn’t alone in this upward trend. Between 2016 and 2017, hate crimes rose by 11 percent in the 13 states that contain counties that make up the Appalachian region. Nationally, their occurrence increased by 17 percent.

Jim Nolan, a sociology professor at West Virginia University who also spent five years leading the data team at the FBI that compiles the annual Hate Crime Statistics report, said hate crimes have been declining since the 2000s, but in 2016, monthly reports show a reverse in the trend, specifically in November of that year.

“November 2016 was the highest November monthly total [recorded] since the beginning of hate crimes data collection,” Nolan said.

There are correlations, according to Nolan, between current events and the trends in the data collected by the FBI, and he believes the rhetoric around the 2016 election led to the November spike.

“[Consider] what they were saying. ‘Build the wall.’ ‘A Muslim ban,’” Nolan said. “Then there are reports that Russia infiltrated the [social] media sites, and they were launching these racist advertisements all around the time the election was happening, and we see a spike in hate crimes happening too. To me, that validates the data.”

More than 2,000 instances of hate occurred in Appalachian states last year, with the highest number of crimes reported in the most populous states that have counties in the region, New York, Kentucky and Ohio.

Nationally, anti-black, anti-gay and anti-Jewish acts occur at the highest rates, according to the report. Anti-Semitic hate crimes increased by 57 percent between 2016 and 2017 and while Nolan said he can’t pinpoint an exact reason why, he believes it’s linked to the resurgence of groups like the ones who rallied in Charlottesville.

“My speculation is that it’s a tie to white nationalism and the white nationalist movement. The undercurrents have been there,” Nolan said. “The movement attracts people that foster these anti-Semitic beliefs that have never gone away.”

Although the latest FBI report is a count of crimes that occurred last year, national media coverage in recent months seems to show that the trend is continuing in 2018.

Just this fall, the nation experienced the shooting of an African American elderly couple in Louisville, Kentucky. The accused shooter had reportedly tried to enter a black church, but was unable to get access before entering the grocery store where the couple was shopping. In October, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the site of the worst anti-semitic attack in decades, when 11 members of the Tree of Life Synagogue were shot during a Saturday service.

Both of the defendants in these separate incidents, both white men, were charged with federal hate crimes.

Nearly 1,000 more law enforcement agencies participated in the 2017 report than the year before, but Nolan does not believe that makes the trend captured by the data unreliable.

A separate study from California State University at San Bernardino found hate crimes had increased by 18 percent in the nation’s nine largest cities, which Nolan said supports the overall trend.

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