Massachusetts Hotline Tracks Post-Election Hate | KERA News

Massachusetts Hotline Tracks Post-Election Hate

Feb 18, 2017
Originally published on February 18, 2017 9:47 am

Editor's note: This story contains language that may be offensive to some readers.

Harassment, threats and intimidation of minorities and immigrants spiked nationwide after President Trump's election in November. Comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, but officials and watch groups say hate-motivated incidents remain higher than usual more than three months after Election Day.

Massachusetts is among the many states that have seen such a spike.

"There was one night, where my parents and I were walking out of a department store," recalls Nadia Butt, 36, of Danvers, Mass., a suburb north of Boston. "And two white males yelled ... 'F****** immigrants go home!' "

Butt says she froze. So did her parents, American citizens who emigrated from Pakistan 40 years ago.

"My dad just kept hugging me as I was crying and just kept repeating that in all of his years of living here, he has never experienced such hatred," says Butts.

The rise in incidents like this one spurred Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to set up a new phone hotline to field hate and harassment complaints and track their frequency.

"I just thought it was so important that we be clear that here in Massachusetts we're going to enforce civil rights laws, we're going to prosecute hate crimes and we're going to be paying attention," says Healey.

The calls flooded in right away. Officials say they've gotten some 250 substantive reports since the election, half of those in November alone. A racist and threatening video was circulated at a local school; an immigrant, in the country illegally, was physically assaulted by a co-worker; two Jewish community centers received bomb threats; and a mosque received a letter calling for ethnic cleansing.

"The kinds of incidents that we're seeing are really scary and troubling," Healey says.

A rising star among state Democrats, Healey is a vocal Trump critic. She says the hotline has received calls from Trump supporters who say they're being harassed.

But most frequently, Healey says, the targets are perceived immigrants and minorities, and the hateful messages often invoke Trump's name, or reference his words.

"Unfortunately what we saw over the last 18 months from Donald Trump were statements that were misogynist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic," says Healey. "And that unfortunately seems to have been matched by this increase, this real uptick in hate crimes and bias incidents."

In a news conference this week, President Trump denied any part in inspiring "racism and horrible things that are put up," saying the nation was already "seriously divided" before he was elected. He blamed "people on the other side" for the rise in these incidents, suggesting that his political opponents are trying to frame his supporters as the culprits. He focused less on denouncing the hate, as he did during an interview with 60 Minutes in November.

"I will say this and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it," he said about the dozens of acts of harassment and intimidation against minorities that were reported after his election, many of which were allegedly performed in his name

In the first month after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate watch group, cataloged 1,094 bias-related incidents nationwide, based on local news reports. Massachusetts was near the top of the group's list, with 53 incidents, trailing only California (125), New York (94) and Texas (71), and tied with Washington state.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at SPLC, says clearly this spike isn't restricted to states where Trump prevailed in November.

"This is not a phenomenon that is only occurring, say, in the Deep South, or in the very red states out West," Potok says. "There are enormous numbers of Americans who feel very uncomfortable with the way the country is changing — more and more people who are foreign-born, more and more Muslims, more people who, in one way or another, do not look like what many people think of as a sort of normal red-blooded American."

In Massachusetts, the attorney general can respond to a hotline report with a criminal or civil case, though more commonly, her office will assist — or prod — local prosecutors and police to act.

Frequently, no perpetrator is ever identified, and no charges result. But prosecution is not the hotline's only goal. Staffers also offer up some much-appreciated sympathy and share outrage with callers on the other end of the line.

Eniola Soyemi, a Boston University graduate student from Nigeria, is one of many callers who say that just being heard and having her ordeal officially documented was therapeutic in itself. After the election, she experienced what she describes as a torrent of racist harassment.

"These kinds of incidents demoralize you as a human being," Soyemi says. "And even though you know deep, deep down inside you that that person is morally wrong, you do need other people to verify that. And I think it does help you move on from such an incident."

Similar hotlines also have been set up in New York and Maryland. Besides supporting victims and prosecuting offenders, officials are hoping to gather some better data on how the current "hate wave" may heat up or cool down over time.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Trump spoke this week about recent hate-motivated incidents and said some of his supporters are being framed as the culprits. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but officials and watch groups say that attacks and threats against minorities and immigrants remain higher than usual. NPR's Tovia Smith has more from Massachusetts, where a new hotline has been set up to handle complaints.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Reports of hate incidents spiked right after the presidential election, a noxious rash of everything from taunts to attacks.

NADIA BUTT: There was a night where my parents and I were walking out of a department store. And two white males, they yelled, you know - [expletive] immigrants, go home.

SMITH: Nadia Butt says she literally froze, as did her parents, American citizens who emigrated from Pakistan 40 years ago.

BUTT: My dad just kept hugging me as I was crying and just kept repeating that in all of his years of living here, he has never experienced such hatred.

SMITH: It's exactly because of cases like that that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says she set up a hotline to field complaints.

MAURA HEALEY: I just thought it was so important that we be clear that here in Massachusetts, we're going to enforce civil rights laws. We're going to prosecute hate crimes, and we're going to be paying attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

KIMBERLY STROVINK: Attorney general's office - this is Kim.

SMITH: Officials say they've gotten some 250 substantive reports, half of those in November.

STROVINK: Tell me why you called us today.

SMITH: A racist and threatening video was circulated at a local school.

STROVINK: What police department were you working with?

SMITH: An immigrant, here illegally, was physically assaulted by a co-worker.

STROVINK: You said there were some sexual harassment comments going on as well.

SMITH: And Muslim and Jewish targets were pelted with hate and threats.

HEALEY: The kinds of incidents that we're seeing are really scary and troubling.

SMITH: Healey is a rising star among Democrats and a vocal Trump critic, though she says the hotline is for everyone, including the Trump supporters who've called to say they're being harassed. But most frequently, she says, the targets are perceived immigrants and minorities. And the hateful messages often invoke Trump's name or reference his words.

HEALEY: Unfortunately, what we saw over the last 18 months from Donald Trump were statements that were misogynist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic. And that, unfortunately, seems to have been matched by this uptick in hate crimes and bias incidents.

MARK POTOK: I think what is being reported in Massachusetts is very much what we saw all around the country.

SMITH: Mark Potok is with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate watch group. They counted some 1,100 hate incidents around the nation in the month after the election. Massachusetts' spike was among the highest.

POTOK: There are enormous numbers of Americans who feel very uncomfortable with the way the country is changing - more and more people who are foreign-born; more and more Muslims; more people who, in one way or another, do not look like what many people think of as a sort of normal, red-blooded American.

SMITH: But Trump, this week, insisted his supporters were not responsible.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Some of the signs you'll see are not put up by the people that love or like Donald Trump. They're put up by the other side.

SMITH: Trump also denied any part in inspiring hate, saying the nation was, quote, "seriously divided before I got here." And he focused less on denouncing the hate as he did during a November interview with "60 Minutes."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

TRUMP: I will say this - and I'll say it right to the cameras - stop it.

SMITH: Back in Massachusetts, it's often challenging in many cases to determine who's behind the alleged incidents.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

STROVINK: But I will tell you that I'm going to be taking this very seriously. It's obviously very concerning in light of the types of threats that were made.

SMITH: Frequently, the perpetrator cannot be identified and no charges result. But prosecution is not the only goal.

STROVINK: I'm really sorry to hear that. That's terrible. Nobody should have to go through something like that.

SMITH: Many who call in say just having their ordeal officially documented is therapeutic itself, including Eniola Soyemi, a Nigerian grad student at Boston University who experienced what she describes as a torrent of racist harassment.

ENIOLA SOYEMI: These kinds of incidents demoralize you as a human being. And even though you know deep, deep down inside you that that person is morally wrong, you do need other people to verify that. And I think it does help you move on from such an incident.

SMITH: Similar hotlines have been set up in New York and Maryland. Besides supporting victims and prosecuting offenders, officials are hoping to end up with some better data on how the current hate wave may heat up or cool down over time.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.