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The rise of hate in 2016

A look back at a bleak year in America.


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Posted on Dec 24, 2016   Updated on Feb 28, 2020, 6:27 pm CST

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In the 10 days following the 2016 presidential election there were nearly 900 reported incidents of hate crimes across the country. “Whites Only” was spray painted across a Maryland church. Muslim Americans were attacked, harassed and yelled at. Swastikas were scrawled on a little league dugout. And while the vast majority of incidents were reported against minorities, in rare instances, it went the other way: A man on a New York City subway was beaten for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.

And all that was just 10 days.

“Extremism and hate took center stage in the U.S. once again in 2016, claiming dozens of lives and leaving communities nationwide scarred by acts of hate,” Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told Vocativ. “Violent acts—from the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, to white supremacist hate crimes, to the summer attacks against law enforcement officers — were compounded by the uptick in reported hate incidents, especially post-election.”

From calculated violence against the LGBT community, to aggression towards Muslims, immigrants and police — not to mention the rise of a racist political movement steeped in neo-Nazi ideologies — 2016 has seen unity among Americans bottom out, perhaps more than in any year in recent history. Worse yet, these aren’t just a string of isolated incidents: 2016 saw a steady uptick in organized hate — groups with bigoted ideologies across the spectrum came together and grew. As the year comes to a close, Vocativ takes a look back at some of 2016’s more disturbing developments.

Islamophobia Boils Over

In December of 2015, a husband and wife in San Bernardino, California carried out one of the bloodiest mass shootings in U.S. history. It came on the heels of multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks across Paris that claimed the lives of 130 people just a month earlier. Like the Paris attackers, the killers in San Bernardino claimed to be Islamic jihadis acting on behalf of ISIS, which fueled an already festering fire of fear-driven Islamophobia—and then-candidate Trump pounced on it.

“These people in California, people knew he had bombs all over the floor, people knew it, why didn’t they turn him in?” then-candidate Trump asked at a rally in New Hampshire shortly after the shootings in San Bernardino. He went on to say, “there’s something going on” with Muslims and “their culture,” according to an NPR reporter who attended the rally.

In 2015, hate crimes against Muslims increased by 78 percent from 2014, according to a study from Cal State San Bernardino. The study credits the spike to ongoing terrorist attacks both at home and abroad, but also to the divisive rhetoric used during the presidential campaign, primarily by Trump. A full 2016 tally isn’t yet available, but there’s evidence to suggest it will be worse.

Following the attacks in California, fears of Islamic extremism grew, and American Muslims knew a backlash was coming. “Every Muslim worries about being victimized,” Mahmoud Tarifi, a leader at the Islamic Center of Claremont, told the Los Angeles Times shortly after the shootings. “It’s how we felt after 9/11 and after the Paris attacks.”

About a week later, a mosque about 70 miles from San Bernardino was set on fire—and that was just the beginning.

In the months following, a group of anti-immigrant vigilantes who have been terrorizing Muslim asylum-seekers in Europe since early 2015 found their way to the U.S. By May of 2016, the Soldiers of Odin had a membership roster of more than 4,000 people in 42 states. They conducted armed “patrols” in cities across the country. Their mission can be summed up in a message posted on the organization’s private Facebook page where it states that the Soldiers of Odin USA “stands in opposition to the hoards [sic] of ‘refugees’ that have invaded Europe and will soon be coming to America, bringing massive waves of rape and crime with them… We say no!”

The group’s European counterparts have a reputation as a violent, neo-Nazi-esque lynch mob, but one of its leaders denies that’s the case. “The accusation that we are a Nazi or any other racially motivated hate group is not true,” Chevy Sevier, the group’s “Southwest Commander,” told Vocativ in May. “We are simply Americans preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

Despite his assertion that the organization is peaceful, some of its members belong to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups, and many have used the group’s social media accounts to express the message with more vitriol than what’s laid out in the Soldier of Odin’s bylaws.

“These Africans are a bunch of spoiled brats contaminating clean communities. Call them out. Kick some ass. Spread the message. America needs to get tough,” reads one Facebook comment cited by the Anti-Defamation League in a report released earlier this year. In another, a member wrote “hate isn’t a strong enough word for what I feel for these sand monkeys.”

Gathering of the Racists

In 2015, the number of chapters of various Ku Klux Klan groups more than doubled from 72 in 2014 to 190 by the end of last year, according to a February report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2016, they started to get organized with not just other Klan groups, but with other white nationalist organizations like the National Socialist Movement, America’s premier neo-Nazi organization, and other lesser-known bands of bigots.

In April, members of various Klan factions met at a bar in rural Georgia with other white nationalists, including Jeff Schoep, the commander of the NSM. The purpose of the meeting was to create an alliance between the groups—a concept they’d struggled with in the past. They called it the Aryan Nationalist Alliance, and members each signed an agreement pledging the support of their respective organizations to the other members of the newly formed umbrella organization of white supremacists. The alliance guarantees each group’s autonomy. “Our race is our nation, and our skin is our uniform,” the agreement states.

“This is something we haven’t seen in the United States in maybe forever, at least in decades,” Schoep told Vocativ at the meeting. “So it was something that I felt needed to be done and needed to be said. So we came up with Aryan National Alliance and drafted a document and basically said this is something all the groups need to do: come together. We have about ten organizations on so far and should have a few more coming on.

“We’ve had a major problem with [infighting] in the past,” he continued. “Groups would hate each other and sometimes it would even erupt in violence. And we put an end to it once and for all.”

Following Trump’s election, Klan and other white nationalist groups held a “victory” parade in North Carolina.

“We actually kind of have the same views,” Amanda Barker, the wife of Klan leader Chris Barker, told a local newspaper after the victory lap. “Actually a lot of white Americans actually felt the same way, especially about the wall, immigration and the terrorism coming here. I think Donald Trump is going to do some really good things and turn this country around.”

Build The Wall

Donald Trump launched his campaign for president by claiming that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that promises of building a 2,500-mile border wall (and getting Mexico to pay for it!) turned many of his supporters into rabid mobs chanting “build the wall” at his daily rallies. It should come as less of a surprise that watching these Trump sycophants nearly foaming at the mouth has terrified the millions of Hispanics in the U.S., regardless of their immigration status.

In August, Vocativ spoke with several Hispanic immigrants who were in the country illegally. One of them, Eddie (not his real name), was brought to the U.S. by no fault of his own when he was 8 years old. He now holds two masters degrees and is married with a 1-year-old daughter. A wall is not what scares him—it’s the deportation squads Trump has also pledged to deploy that would boot even productive members of society like Eddie back across the border.

“My biggest fear is being separated from my girls. I’ve been with my wife for fourteen years, and during those fourteen years we have not been apart for more than a day or two,” he said. “Now we have a beautiful daughter. It is just inconceivable that I could be without them for ten years or more. If you’ve been in the US for over a year and you leave, or get kicked out, you trigger the ten-year bar. Can you imagine being apart from your family for ten years or more?”

Whose Lives Matter?

Along with white nationalists, there also has been a huge spike in the number of black separatist groups from 113 in 2014 to 180 last year, according to the SPLC’s report (the SPLC considers these types of groups to be “hate groups.”) The report’s author, Mark Potok, said the increase is “pretty much as a direct result of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,” which advocates for victims of police violence and against the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In 2016, the perfect storm of police violence, black separatist rhetoric, and racial unrest contributed to the deaths of five police officers.

In July, following the controversial officer-involved deaths of two black men, one in Louisiana and another in Minnesota, Black Lives Matter held a demonstration in Dallas to condemn the the deaths of two more black people at the hands of police officers. During the protest, a lone gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, fatally shot five cops.

Following the shootings, leadership within the Black Lives Matter movement were quick to condemn the shootings. But the militant fringe of movement urged further violence against police.

“WE ARE CALLING ON THE GANGS ACROSS THE NATION! ATTACK EVERYTHING IN BLUE EXCEPT THE MAIL MAN!” Dr. Mauricelm-Lei Millere, an “advisor” to the New Black Panther Party and head of the African American Defense League posted on Facebook following the shootings in Dallas. The message was accompanied by an image of blue and red fists embracing each other and the hashtag #BloodsAndCripsUnite, in reference to the notorious street gangs, which are typically rivals.

Black Lives Matter disavows individuals like Mauricelm-Lei Millere and groups like the New Black Panther Party, but these groups still exist, and social media has allowed their influence to grow each time a cop kills a black person under questionable circumstances.

In response to the growing sway of Black Lives Matter, 2016 also saw the creation of movements like Blue Lives Matter, which advocates for police, and All Lives Matter, which was intended to be a more inclusive homage to the BLM movement, but was also met with criticism from other black groups. One organization, however, drew criticism from not only black separatists, but the general public and civil rights advocacy groups, as well: White Lives Matter.

The White Lives Matter movement spawned from white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the National Socialist Movement. One of its founders—and more vocal members—is Rebecca Barnette. Barnett is also the Women’s Division leader of the National Socialist Movement. Vocativ first met Barnette in April at the gathering of white nationalist organizations in Georgia, where she helped burn a cross and swastika alongside her white supremacist ilk. She claims White Lives Matter is no more racist or exclusive than Black Lives Matter—it just advocates for white people rather than blacks. That said, she’s also quoted as saying “It should be apparent to the world … Obama is for the niggers.”

“What happens to blacks in this country at the hand of law enforcement is none of our concern … other than to prepare to restore order and rebuild our neighborhoods taking back our lands one community at a time,” she said. “When the enemy destroys … we guard our town borders and make our homes white and great again.”

The Rise of the Alt-right

In August, Hillary Clinton gave an impassioned speech about how Trump was allowing a “radical fringe [to] take over the Republican Party.” Then she did something few mainstream politicians had done previously: she named that “radical fringe.”

“This is not conservatism as we have known it,” she said in her August 25 speech. “This is not Republicanism as we have known it. These are race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.’”

Racists rejoiced; Clinton’s recognition of this previously little-known “alt-right” movement, which generally existed only in the darkest corners of the internet, was the watershed moment it needed. But Trump was the catalyst—his fiery rhetoric about border walls and deportation squads rounding up Muslims struck a chord with the racist right; he mainstreamed many of their ideologies; he made their message more acceptable and emboldened once anonymous racists to step out of the shadows and fall in line behind the then-GOP nominee.

“The shackles are off, and Trump is getting radical,” the movement’s de-facto leader, Richard Spencer, wrote in an October tweet (Twitter later suspended his account before reinstating it in early December.) He went on: “No matter what happens [in the election], I will be profoundly grateful to Donald Trump for the rest of my life.”

Another player in the “alt-right” movement, Matthew Heimbach, also credited the president-elect with pushing the line of what constituted mainstream conservatism further to the fringes—he referred to Trump as “the gateway drug” to white supremacy.

A week after Trump was elected, Spencer was in a conference room in Washington D.C. to discuss how to grow the movement even further, and to take a victory lap after Trump’s shocking victory. He ended his 30-minute keynote address to about 200 of his followers by giving a Nazi salute. “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” he said, as the crowd erupted, many giving Nazi salutes themselves as they repeated Spencer’s Third Reich-themed battle cry.

One of the cornerstones of the “alt-right’s” anti-everything agenda isn’t just anti-Semitism—the group spent a considerable amount of time harassing and threatening Jewish journalists who published less-than-glamorous critiques of Trump—but misogyny, too; many of those who subscribe to the group’s culture of hate and online trolling were spawned from the Gamergate controversy, where web-based gamer trolls harassed and threatened women in the video game industry.  

“[Far-right groups] feel that they’ve gained so much over the course of the last year, even if [Trump] loses, they still win,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told Vocativ in November.

What Now?

The election of Donald Trump will have an enormous impact on how the country attempts to bridge the racial and ideological divide. His divisive nature thus far offers observers little hope.

“While hate crimes and incidents are hardly unique to 2016, post-election incidents have carried the additional baggage of a not only following a divisive presidential campaign, but also at times, directly referencing it,” said the ADL’s Segal.

“While the landscape of extremism is constantly in flux, extremists from across the ideological spectrum exploit the internet and social media to reach, recruit and radicalize like never before,” he continued. “This challenge will not simply go away on its own. Indeed, pushing back on extremism and hate no matter where is spreads in the coming year starts with community leaders and those in the highest office speaking out consistently.”

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*First Published: Dec 24, 2016, 6:00 am CST