Amid reported increase in bias-related incidents, Nessel highlights role of AG Hate Crimes Unit 

Thousands march through downtown Detroit on Oct. 28 to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. (Adam J. Dewey/Anadolu via Getty Images)

By Michigan Advance

November 1, 2023

BY JON KING, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Following reported increases in hate crimes by both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) amid violence in Israel and Gaza, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel encouraged the public, as well as other law enforcement agencies, to contact her office’s Hate Crimes Unit if they are a victim of, or have knowledge about, a hate-motivated crime.

“As Attorney General, I created a dedicated unit to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes. My Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism Unit works with federal, state and local law enforcement partners to ensure crimes of this nature are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” she said. “No one should fear for their safety because of who they are, where they worship—or any other unique attribute that contributes to the diversity of our state.”

The spike in hate incidents has followed in the wake of the Oct. 7 surprise attack by Hamas militants that brutally killed more than 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, while also taking more than 200 hostages. Meanwhile, more than 8,300 people in Gaza, including more than 3,400 children, were reported by health officials in the Hamas-controlled enclave to have been killed by Israeli airstrikes and other military actions since then.

Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) Executive Director Johnson E. Johnson Jr. issued a statement on the increase in hate incidents.

“Organizations that closely monitor hate report an alarming rise in crimes and bias incidents motivated by hate,” he said. “We cannot stand by and allow hate-filled rhetoric and threats of violence to become acts of violence. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights is working closely and quickly with our partners in government and beyond to determine what resources we can bring to bear to help curb this disturbing trend.  As individuals, within our own organizations and in our daily interactions with neighbors, coworkers and fellow Michiganders, we must speak up against hate speech, we must stand up to hate-motivated acts, and we must model—as organizations and as individuals—acceptance, tolerance and love.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks during a press conference on bills to strengthen hate crime laws on April 26. (Michigan Advance/Laina G. Stebbins)

Spike in antisemitic incidents

The ADL, which has been battling antisemitism and extremism for more than a century, said it has seen a “significant spike” in antisemitic incidents across the United States, with preliminary data indicating incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault increased by 388% over the same period last year.

In all, ADL recorded a total of 312 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7 to 23, 190 of which were directly linked to the war between Israel and Hamas.

“By comparison, during the same period in 2022, ADL received preliminary reports of 64 incidents, including four that were Israel-related,” stated the organization.

Carolyn Normandin, the Michigan Regional Director for the ADL, told the Michigan Advance that the group works closely with the AG’s Hate Crimes unit.

“I work as colleagues with her team and I support what she’s doing, and I share her concerns,” she said “We have seen a very dramatic rise in incidents at ADL nationally and locally. For its population, Michigan has a higher number of incidents than it should, and that concerns me greatly.”

Normandin noted that in the ADL’s annual audit for 2022, Michigan ranked ninth in the country for incidents of reported antisemitism, which she called “troubling.”

“The current situation in Israel is driving a big wedge in our communities, and we are seeing some outrageous examples of hateful commentary and threats against Jewish people; these reports are coming into our office at a rapid rate,” said Normandin.

Underscoring that point, the organization logged more than 60 incidents in the three weeks since the Hamas attack, whereas typically they get three to five a week, she said.

“This is an untenable situation,” said Normandin, adding that in response, the ADL has been conducting outreach with community members.

“We’ve been trying to help people understand the difference between free speech and speech that incites hate and violence,” she said. “Free speech is the bedrock of our country, and so people can support whatever group they want to support, but when it becomes problematic is when they threaten people or make people feel anxious or frightened in their own communities.”

One example of the strain between those holding different points of view on the war is highlighted by an incident in Detroit specifically mentioned by the national ADL.

On Oct. 9, a Jewish student said they were harassed, shoved and called “f–king Zionist” while painting a free speech rock on the campus of Wayne State University with an Israeli flag.

The South End, Wayne State’s campus newspaper, reported that the student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) said they had painted a Palestinian flag on the rock just hours before and they were assaulted when they went to repaint the rock. Campus police, however, said a video review showed no assault, but instead described a “heightened tension” that required several police officers to diffuse.

The ADL’s Center on Extremism says “many of the organization’s campus chapters explicitly endorsed the actions of Hamas and their armed attacks on Israeli civilians and voiced an increasingly radical call for confronting and “dismantling” Zionism on US college campuses.”

“Freedom of speech is one thing, but inciting violence or celebrating the murder of innocent people, the torture of innocent people, that’s a problem,” said Normandin.

Another incident involved virulent antisemitic fliers left at homes in several communities, including Chelsea, Dexter and Pinckney, a week after the Hamas attack.

“[T]he fliers depict all Jewish people to be sexually abusing children as well as belonging to a Jewish Mafia that is ruining the country,” stated a social media post by Pinckney Police.

(ADL Graphic via Michigan Advance)

‘Incredibly disheartening’ for Muslim Michiganders

The ramping up of hateful rhetoric has also been felt by Muslim and Arab-American communities in the last few weeks.

CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, said that as of Oct. 25, it had received 774 complaints, including reported bias incidents, since Oct. 7, the largest wave of complaints it has seen since December 2015, after future President Donald Trump declared his intent to ban Muslims from the US.

President Joe Biden rescinded the policy. Trump, who is running again in 2024, reiterated his support for the ban last week.

“CAIR National Headquarters received 110 of these reports between Oct. 7 and Oct. 24,” stated the group. “For comparison, headquarters received a total of 63 intakes in the entire month of August, demonstrating a clear increase in reports brought to the national level.”

The organization’s Michigan Chapter, CAIR-MI, says it has received reports from K-12 students, university students, and employees that their “opinions on Palestine are being suppressed.” It advised university students who don’t feel comfortable leaving their dorm to reach out to campus security and ask if they can be escorted to and from class, or even contact their instructors and request a Zoom link.

“CAIR-MI is documenting all cases from K-12 schools, universities, and employers,” states the organization’s website. “Your voice matters. Your opinion matters.”

The organization also held a press conference Tuesday with the family of a Bloomfield Hills High School student who reportedly was not allowed to return to class after refusing to answer questions about her participation in a scheduled walkout for Palestine that occurred at the school last week.

“High School students should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear that they will be interrogated and investigated for their beliefs,” said CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid. 

Nour S. Ali, the director of safe spaces for CAIR-MI, told the Advance that in the two weeks following Oct. 7, their intakes were up 250%.

“This is the largest amount of intakes the CAIR-MI office has seen within a two-week span in the last four years,” she said.

Ali called the situation for Michigan Muslims “incredibly disheartening.”

“School districts, employers and politicians have thrown the Muslim community under the bus. Students are being called ‘threats’ and promoting violence when they share their pro-Palestine opinions,” she said. “Employees fear for their jobs if they hold an opinion on the ongoing conflict that does not align with their employer.”

Ali also said the situation has been partly fueled by political leaders that the Muslim community in Michigan fundraised and organized for, but have failed to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians.

“In order for the situation to get better for Michigan Muslims, politicians must recognize the pain the community is dealing with,” she said. “They must make an effort to make space for our collective grief over the situation in Palestine.”

Nessel’s “press release lacked in acknowledging the root of this rise in hate crimes against Muslims: which is that Michigan Muslims are expressing their First Amendment right in showing support for Palestine,” said Ali.

Ali pointed to the arrest two weeks ago of a Farmington Hills man after he posted to social media that he was looking to “hunt Palestinians in Dearborn.”

CAIR-MI has called for tougher penalties against the suspect, 41-year-old Carl Mintz, who is charged with a felony count of making a threat of terrorism and a misdemeanor count of malicious use of a telecommunications device. He remains held on a $500,000 bond.

“Charging this suspect with a hate crime will send a strong message that you cannot utilize social media to threaten and intimidate whole communities based on bigotry and hate and that any person who calls for violence against a community based on their own hate will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said CAIR-MI Staff Attorney, Amy V. Doukoure.

Ali said CAIR-MI expects Nessel will protect people who hold pro-Palestinian stances through her Hate Crimes Unit.

“The Islamophobia Michigan Muslims have faced in the last few weeks has been largely as a result for being outspoken in their support of Palestine,” Ali said.

Nessel spokesperson Danny Wimmer told the Advance the Attorney General’s Office is keeping a close eye on bias crimes.

“We are aware of the concerns expressed by communities within the state, as well as nationally, and we would just like to remind Michigan residents of our Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism Unit, and that reports can be made directly to our department for investigation,” he said.

According to a press release from Nessel’s office, victims of a hate crime, or anyone with credible information about a hate crime, should contact their local police department first and then the Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism Unit at the Department of Attorney General via email or at 313-456-0180.

“The Department of Attorney General will follow up on every credible tip, will launch independent investigations when sufficient cause exists, and will offer departmental resources to assist our law enforcement partners,” stated the release.

Normandin seconded that advice, saying there is a purpose to knowing about these incidents beyond just providing an immediate response.

“Data drives decisions, so having a clear understanding of where these incidents are coming from and how they’re manifesting themselves is really important,” she said.

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 

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