Increase in hate crimes and bias incidents leads to community conversations

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Monitor staff

Published: 02-09-2023 5:19 PM

An increase in hate crimes and bias incidents across the state over the last several years has prompted local, state and federal officials and law enforcement to embark on an educational campaign through a series of community discussions on the impacts of hate speech.

On Thursday, the first of many public forums was held at the Michael Briggs Community Center in Manchester where dozens of community members, law enforcement and public officials joined panelists in their discussion.

“We want our relationships with law enforcement to be genuine and fair and we might not always report incidents to the police because it might not go anywhere,” said Ali Sekou, president of the Islamic Society of Concord. “There’s a burden on Muslims because of terrorist acts but we’re just a religion and that religion is used against us.”

Sekou and others said they worry about the safety of their families and fear their children will face discrimination growing up in a majority white community, despite the influx of diversity in religion, race and culture in parts of the state during the past decade, including Concord.

“Communities are becoming more diverse, which is why the uptick is happening,” said Tim DeMann, supervisor and senior resident agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation Boston division. “That and folks are more willing to come forward to law enforcement, but we recognize there could still be a fear or mistrust.”

In 2021, 7,303 hate crime incidents were reported to the FBI and 62% of them involved racial bias, DeMann said.

In New Hampshire, the number of hate crime complaints being reported has grown in the nearly six years since the state set up a dedicated civil rights unit in the attorney general’s office. The office received 187 hate crime complaints statewide in 2022, up from 40 complaints in 2018, Sean Locke, director of the Civil Rights Unit, reported last month.

Discrimination and hate speech goes beyond religion and race; it’s often used to target sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, age, gender and other defining characteristics of minority groups.

‘Speech’ is morethan words

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In the United States, speech that doesn’t invoke a threat or violent action is protected under the First Amendment, explained Seth Aframe, an assistant U.S. Attorney. He used the case Black vs. Virginia, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a state law making it illegal to burn a cross in public was overbroad, as an example to explain the difference between unprotected and protected hate speech.

“In a field in Virginia, 15 to 20 members of the Ku-Klux-Klan gathered there, had a rally and decided to burn a large cross at the end,” Aframe said. “A Black woman saw the activity and the people engaging in the burning of the cross were prosecuted.”

However, the defense attorney argued that the cross burning didn’t target a specific person or family and was merely a symbol of white supremacy, therefore it should be protected under the First Amendment.

If a hate symbol printed on a flier or handout denounces a religion or a race, it could be protected under the First Amendment, Aframe said. Still, law enforcement officials recommended reporting the incident for future monitoring and to deter suspects from escalating.

Free speech and safety

Panelists suggested educating students on anti-hate to dissuade harmful actions, while others encouraged talking about individual differences and educating state law enforcement.

“We need to know immediately if someone is a victim of a suspected hate crime,” said Allen Aldenberg, Manchester Chief of Police. “If someone is injured, we can get them treated, get the injury documented in real time, collect evidence, interview witnesses and develop a pattern to help further the investigation.”

Without reporting specific incidents, suspects might feel empowered to escalate their crimes and place communities in fear, he continued. But he acknowledged that some victims might feel shame, embarrassment, or intimidation.

To bridge the gap between the community and local law enforcement, DeMann encouraged community members to reach out to their local police department for support, engagement and resources.

“Over the last 20 years, we have seen more diversity in New Hampshire, especially in urban areas,” said Attorney General John Formella. “Hate has no place in New Hampshire, but we have seen an increase in reports of hate-motivated acts over the last few years.”

Through the panel discussions and public forums, Formella hopes to use the conversations as a way to internally examine how local, state and federal law enforcement agencies take action and prosecute hate crimes and what they can do better for community members in the future.

More public forums have yet to be announced.

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