During Monday’s White House briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer was asked a question about a rise in hate crimes, including the recent murder of Timothy Caughman at the hands of a white supremacist. His response? Not only did Spicer fail to acknowledge that Caughman’s death was a hate crime by stating that he was not going to discuss “any specific case,” but the press secretary then proceeded to lambast the media for rushing to blame the right for incidents like recent anti-Semitic attacks. While Spicer tried to shift the conversation, it’s important to remember that there was a spike in hate crimes immediately following the election of Donald Trump (and according to several studies, a rise against certain groups during the campaign cycle as well). The fact that even copycats (according to law enforcement) like Juan Thompson knew that they could feed into an atmosphere of hate speaks volumes. And the President and the White House’s virtual silence is deafening.
In just two weeks following the Presidential election of 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noted that there were more than 700 reports of hate crimes across the country including everything from physical and verbal assaults to destruction of property. In fact, SPLC says the number of hate groups in the U.S. rose for the second year in a row in 2016 as “the radical right was energized by the candidacy of Donald Trump.” That rise in hate crimes has only continued since then as we’ve seen incident after incident from anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic attacks to attacks against people of color, women and the LGBTQ community. The murder of Caughman is just the latest tragedy that has left many people on edge. The President and the administration owe these Americans more than a simple deflection of the reality with which we are dealing.
James Jackson, the white supremacist arrested for Caughman’s death, was charged with murder as an act of terrorism on Monday. And yet the Trump administration wants to revamp the Countering Violent Extremism program so that it no longer includes groups like white supremacists according to several news reports last month. When I met with Attorney General Sessions recently there was no real commitment through the Justice Department about what to do regarding this subject, and so far we have seen no real strategy from the White House. The President can tweet out his disdain for Broadway shows and press coverage he doesn’t agree with, but apparently can’t find time to address these very real and very troubling issues.
April 4th marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – a murder which is the definition of a hate crime. This weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, leaders of the Jewish community, labor leaders and I will convene a service and rally against hate at Riverside Church in New York City. We will collectively condemn bigotry in all its forms and call for direct action to combat this growing crisis. We must press the federal government to denounce hate and protect citizens with strong hate crime laws and enforcement of those laws.
It is not enough to make generalized statements about how we all must get along, and it certainly is not enough to deflect from the very real challenges at hand in an effort to take attention away from the root problem. The President and his administration are not going to get a pass because they want to move on from the issue; there are too many Americans that are directly living in fear because of the climate that has been created. Instead of being defensive about blame, they need to come up with policies and laws that protect all of us. No child should go to bed worried that they will be bullied at school because of their race/religion/orientation; no person should hesitate attending their houses of worship thinking they may be attacked/vandalized; and no one should fear losing their life simply walking down the street because a person filled with hate drives to their state looking to commit murder.
At the end of the day, we may not be able to make people love us, but we can make sure that if they exercise hate they will pay a very real price for it.