They are the “others.” People not like “us.”

Who are they?

“They’re somebody who’s different, looks different, worships different, lives different than me,” said Elvin Gonzalez, family division administrator with the Berrien County Trial Court and member of Southwest Michigan ALPACT – Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust.

He was one of the speakers at a recent forum on “Communities That Care: Understanding and Responding to ‘Hate Crimes,’” which was sponsored by ALPACT and the Michigan Department for Civil Rights.

He said there’s a lot of national rhetoric right now in which some people have very strong opinions and biases about other groups of people. And he said they are using social media, emails, texting and robocalls to send their ideas out quicker than ever before.

“Some of the conversations that are happening in the social media are really unproductive,” he said. “What they do is they divide people. They create what I call ‘otherisms.’ You’re different than me, so you’re other than me, and you don’t have the same status in this community or this county or this job or this society. The power of social media can be used for good just like it can be used for not so good.”

Negative stereotypes and assumptions about an entire group of people can be devastating.

“Those assumptions are generally not always accurate,” he said.

Some stereotypes are that those “other” people are all crooks or lazy.

Gonzalez said it isn’t fair to treat a person you don’t know differently based on assumptions in your head. 

It’s one thing to treat a group of people unfairly based on attributes they have no control over, such as the color of their skin, the country of their origin or their sexual orientation. It’s another thing to hate them. And hate is on the rise.

Growing hate

In 2017, the number of hate crimes increased by 7 percent in Michigan and by 17 percent nationally since 2016, said Mark Bishop, community outreach coordinator for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in Lansing.

The 17 percent increase nationally is much higher than the 5 percent increase reported from 2015 to 2016, according to FBI statistics.

Bishop said hate crimes are underreported because the victims often don’t want to speak with law enforcement because they don’t want to stand out.

He said the victims will tell their religious leaders what happened, instead. He said that’s why organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center are so important.

“(The victims) don’t want people to know they are there, let alone that they’ve been the victims of some sort of situation,” he said. “So these agencies do a very good job of trying to help track underreported situations.”

The Anti-Defamation League reported in February that anti-Semitic incidents rose almost 60 percent in 2017 to 1,986 incidents.

“That figure represents a 57 percent increase over the 1,267 incidents in 2016,” states the report. “Every part of the country was affected, with an incident reported in all 50 states for the first time in at least a decade.”

A Michigan problem

Bishop said you don’t have to look very hard to find incidents of hate.

In November, a white man confessed to leaving racist, threatening voicemail messages at a predominately black church in Grand Rapids. The man is considering pleading guilty to ethnic intimidation.

Because of the First Amendment, there is no criminal remedy for some hate speech. But Bishop said that doesn’t protect people from suffering the consequences of their actions in the private sector.

An employee at Dark Horse Brewing Co. in Marshall found that out the hard way. Company officials posted on the company’s Facebook page the day after Thanksgiving that they had fired a dishwasher after he made an “intolerant” post on his personal account.

“The guy that made the nasty post is allowed to do that. It was his own personal social media,” Bishop said. “Dark Horse Brewery can hold him accountable for that. It’s not a First Amendment issue because Dark Horse Brewery is not an arm of the government. If you do something silly out there, be ready to suffer the consequences.”

He said Dark Horse Brewing did several things correct. First, they took immediate action. Second, they didn’t repeat the nasty post.

“Excellent strategy. Never advertise for the bad guy,” Bishop said.

For example, he said someone who is anti-Nazi wouldn’t wear a T-shirt with a swastika with a slash through it.

“Make your message positive,” he said. “Put your action in front of theirs. We don’t name the individual. We’re not trying to shame the individual. We’re just owning up to the fact that he did something. He was associated with us. We’re disassociating from him. Goodbye. So long.”

Vigilante justice?

But he said that doesn’t mean that people should take the law into their own hands.

“We’re seeing more and more frequently that law enforcement and prosecutors can’t do anything, so the ‘great world wide web’ takes over,” he said.

Bishop said there was a recent case in Grand Rapids in which the the prosecutor’s office was overrun with outraged people. The accusation was that a registered sex offender had used the “n” word against a 5-year-old girl in an alley while urinating on her.

“The prosecutor’s office didn’t even have the case file yet,” he said.

The guy was arrested and people on social media were saying they wanted to know his name so the “brothers of the county jail” could take care of him before he went to trial.

Bishop said people on social media then turned against the mother of the little girl for letting her daughter play outside.

The problem was that the accusations weren’t true.

“Mom and dad found out that the kids had made up the story and the guy had an airtight alibi of where he was and what he was doing at the time this all took place,” he said. “Allow the system to work. Focus your attentions on the victims. What assistance do they need? Are they safe? Are there other needs?”

And he said people need to show empathy for both the victim and the perpetrator. He said young offenders of today can become tomorrow’s murderers. He said it is important to get young offenders the help and support they need so they don’t become worse.

Bishop said the zero tolerance policies at schools often help feed the hate groups.

“They know how to recruit these kids as much as a child predator knows how to recruit these kids,” he said. “They find that string of vulnerability and they just keep pulling until they suck them in. And a lot of these kids want out, but they have no reasonable, rational way of getting out when everyone else is saying, ‘You’re a bad, evil person and we don’t want you in our community. Go away.’”

Sending a message

Mary Jo Schnell, executive director of the OutCenter in Benton Harbor, said hate crimes against minority and marginalized groups damage the entire community.

“Hate crimes are committed with the intent of not only sending a message to the targeted victim, ... but also that person’s community as a whole,” she said.

She said hate speech needs to be stopped.

“Words matter,” she said. “Hate speech is linked to hate crimes.”

She said there’s a lot that can be done to protect people without laws having to be passed. And she said she has faith that the people in Berrien County will come together to protect everyone despite their differences.

“The past few years have been really kind of tough for marginalized communities,” she said. “... It’s an alarming time for everyone. I don’t think like anyone can feel like we’re done. Our work is just beginning. And I think there’s room for all of us at the table for discourse and at the table to come together to create communities that care with out hate speech or hate crimes.”

Passive versus active bystander

Participants at the forum watched several videos where minorities were discriminated against in public places. In one video, a restaurant hostess refused to seat a Muslim couple until a table opened up in the back so they don’t make other diners uncomfortable.

The video was later revealed to be from a “What Would You Do?” episode aired on ABC in 2017, with the white hostess and Muslim couple being actors. 

In one situation, two white men protested when the hostess was going to seat them before the Muslim couple.

“If you’re not going to treat them like everybody else, we’re not going to stay,” one man said before it was revealed that the situation was part of a television show. “... There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re human beings just like us.”

A group of three white women said they were not only leaving the restaurant, but invited the Muslim couple to dine with them at a different restaurant.

Gonzalez said these two situations are examples of people being active rather than passive bystanders.

He said passive bystanders see a situation but do nothing to help.

“You just say, ‘It’s not my business, it didn’t happen to me,’” he said.

Active bystanders take action.

“An active bystander says, ‘There’s something going on that’s not right. Somebody looks like they need help or support or encouragement or a kind word,’” he said.

One woman at the forum said if you don’t speak up, you allow the ignorance to continue.

“By your silence, you condone their behavior,” another person said.

Educational moments

Schnell said speaking up can be an educational moment not just for the people involved, but for everyone watching the situation.

She said it’s especially important for people in society’s privileged group, which is white people in America, to use their privilege to stand up for the marginalized people.

“The more often we do, the less people get the idea that it’s OK to say” hateful things, she said.

Gonzalez said attending the forum was an important step, but what’s more important is what attendees do moving forward.

“The real test is when you walk out those doors,” he said. “And guess what. This behavior is not just happening in some distant state. It’s not happening in some distant county. It’s happening every day in some shape, form or fashion, right where we live. ... Look for those times when you can be an active participant, an active advocate, an active bystander.”

He said he’s found that the more he practices being an active bystander, the easier it gets.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege