Pride and prejudice lead to blood and firebombs in Northern Nevada, across the nation and around the world. But how is the area responding to this hate?
Local headlines scream hate.
A synagogue firebombed. Gay people beaten and murdered. A rabbi threatened with death. Two men beaten with baseball bats at a Sparks mosque. Young black men arrested in Reno, allegedly only because they are young and black. A Tongan using an ax to kill a University of Nevada, Reno, cop because, in his words, “I wanted to kill someone white.”
The list of Reno-Sparks hate crimes in the last few years could go on and on, but you get the idea. Have we gone nuts? Has Northern Nevada fallen into a steaming swamp of hate crime?
As always, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that Reno-Sparks isn’t any worse than the rest of the country, according to National Conference for Community and Justice Executive Director Christiana Bratiotis in Reno. The bad news is that the rest of the country is pretty bad.
Reno hasn’t seen anyone dragged to death behind a pickup truck, but gay teen Derek Henkle charged that two boys at Galena High School tried to lasso him to drag him behind a pickup. Henkle said he’s alive today only because his fellow students were lousy at roping.
Most hate crimes, here and across the nation, aren’t done by ideologically committed, cold-blooded bigots, but by young men seeking a thrill-fix of violence. They commit fully 60 percent of hate crimes, according to a Northeastern University (Boston) study.
“There seems to be a gender specificity to these crimes,” said Dr. Viktoria Hertling, founder and director of UNR’s Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Peace studies. “If you look at demonstrations, it’s always men in the front throwing, kicking, screaming.”
That’s true not just in the United States, said Hertling. “It’s a global cultural phenomenon.”
Humans have been knocking each other off ever since Cain whacked Abel because God liked Abel better. Groups of prehistoric humans hated the humans in the next valley because they looked or acted a bit different. In historic times, various human groups have tried to wipe out other human groups—and have been frighteningly successful at it.
Christian crusaders killed everyone indiscriminately, including other Christians. Everyone picked on the Jews, at least until the Jews took over the former Palestine, and some Jews started being scary themselves. Irv Rubin of the Jewish Defense League, who visited Reno a year ago, has said: “I want for every Jew, a .22—keep alive with a .45.”
So. We are all guilty. We are also all victims.
Mayhem against Muslims?
A violent incident in mid-March rocked Northern Nevada’s Muslim community. Two young men walked up to Dr. Eltag Mirghani, 48, and Muhammad Sanad, 46, in the parking lot of a Sparks mosque on Oddie Boulevard. Both men were beaten with a baseball bat. Mirghani was hospitalized and in a coma. His condition has since been upgraded to serious as he slowly recovers. Sanad’s arm was broken. At first, the crime had the earmarks of a hate crime—the attackers seemed to have made no demands of the victims, and the attack happened next to a place of worship.
California teen Scott Anthony Cannady and David Nollette, 15, of Reno, are being charged with attempted murder and robbery. The Sparks Police Department has since announced that it wasn’t a hate crime after all.
One would have expected a roar of protest from the Muslim community, but instead there was mostly acceptance of the “not-hate” call. Sparks officials obviously had done something right.
“The police department had diversity training recently, so they were pretty sensitized,” said Nadiah Beekun, a longtime member of Northern Nevada’s Muslim community. “Then, as they began to investigate, they kept our community well-informed. The police worked with us.”
The Muslim community was told more details than the media was, engendering trust. The entire Reno-Sparks community showed support by coming to a big interfaith service at the mosque.
“The police scheduled a press conference for earlier that day, and we asked them to set it later—in conjunction with the interfaith meeting. They did, and it showed the police and community were working together,” Beekun said.
At that meeting—nine days after the crime—Sparks police and their wives sat down with Muslims, participants from other religions and people from the community for a dinner. “One of the Sparks policemen did magic tricks for the kids—some of the sisters had come up with food, and some of the police wives had brought food. We had a real community get-together.”
Hate speech sells.
Often, the innocent pay.
A week before Mirghani and Sanad were beaten with a baseball bat in Sparks, syndicated talk show host Michael Savage of “The Savage Nation” railed about Muslims. “Show me one Muslim country that has the freedom we have in the U.S.,” he sneered as part of his diatribe on Reno’s KKOH-AM, one of the stations that airs his show.
Of course, it would be hard to draw a direct causal connection here. But it does illustrate a mindset. Savage calls Third World countries “Turd World countries.” Does this remind you of white extremists who call people of African descent “mud people"?
But even if the attack in Sparks wasn’t itself a hate crime, Savage’s words add to a very real atmosphere of anti-Muslim hate in the United States.
On April 5, Savage asked his radio audience: If the United States and China went to war “as the Red devils seem to want,” should Americans of Chinese ancestry be jailed?
Guess what Savage thought. This is a man who earlier said: “It’s time for hate. I’m sick of love, love, love.”
Savage’s syndicated show is popular. San Jose Mercury News radio columnist Brad Kava called Savage, whose real name is Michael Weiner, “the slimiest guy in talk radio.”
Radio stations announce that the opinions of talk show hosts do not necessarily reflect those of the staff and management. In the case of Savage, that’s probably right. However, you don’t have to agree with hate to use it to sell air time.
Let’s be clear—we are not talking about people like Rusty Humphries or Michael Reagan, both right-wingers with KKOH talk radio shows. Humphries and Reagan both avoid severe hate speech and bring up short most call-ins that attempt to spew hate.
Savage, however, is vicious. He has a constitutional right to say what he does, but no radio station is obliged to air his sewage.
Except, alas, hate sells. And the innocent pay.
The cultural landscape of Northern Nevada is changing, the NCCJ’s Bratiotis said.
“The faces look different from the faces in 1960,” Bratiotis said. “And some people are resisting that change, and some are celebrating that change.”
The NCCJ not only is among those celebrating diversity, but also is helping others realize that diversity is good.
“It’s not enough to be out there fighting bias and bigotry,” said Bratiotis. “We have to say, ‘Here is how we learn to live harmoniously.’ The NCCJ has a number of programs to help people learn just that.”
The NCCJ will come to any requesting business or group and teach participants how to get along better.
“What’s significant about the program is that it is not a lecture series but an experience, where people are forced to look at who they are, and look at other people in deep and meaningful ways. Then they learn to make sense out of a world … looking at people through a lens they’ve never looked through before. We will do it in businesses, in schools, wherever there is a desire.”
Camp Anytown is the NCCJ’s solution for bringing its different lens to that 60 percent mentioned above as the most likely to commit a hate crime—teenagers who aren’t necessarily bigots, but who might consider anyone different from them as being a bit weird and fair game for violence. Camp Anytown is an intense, weeklong summer camp south of Carson City, and it is staffed and peopled by a diverse bunch of people, from rich kids to Job Corps kids, from Asians to Jews to blacks to whites to gays to cops. It’s America in cross-section.
For a week, camp attendees talk about what their lives are like, and they go through mental exercises designed to make them walk in someone else’s shoes for a brief period. They leave changed. Many people in social services across Northern Nevada are Anytown grads, including Bratiotis, who completed the program in 1990.
McQueen student Brad Cheeseman is an Anytown grad of 2000. He said the experience gave him a deeper perspective. Cheeseman, who is white, said he didn’t dislike minorities before attending Anytown.
"[But] I got to listen to their lives as they listened to mine,” he said. What he found somewhat surprised him. “[Their lives] weren’t that different. … None of us truly knows what its like to live in an inclusive world—but Camp Anytown comes pretty darn close.”
Strides in Reno-Sparks
In Sparks, diversity leadership begins at the top. Shortly after being elected mayor in June 1999, Tony Armstrong had a sign placed in the City Council chambers. The sign has only one word: Respect.
“I live by that,” Armstrong said. “We may not always agree about things—but if you respect other people, you can make the world turn.”
The city of Sparks also has an official Diversity Statement—celebrating the city’s diverse population—and a Value Statement, which forbids discrimination in many forms. Armstrong gives credit for the police sensitivity training to Sparks Human Resources director Larry Lovejoy. Others give credit to the entire Rail City for its efforts.
“Sparks did a great job with that,” said Reno Police Department’s Craig Pittman. “And they are doing an excellent job following up. In Reno, we are working with our Muslim community to say, ‘If you have any problems, let us know.’ “
Reno can boast Pittman as the state’s only full-time community action and network officer, who reports directly to Reno Police Chief Jerry Hoover.
“My job is to interact with all segments of the community and get the Reno Police Department involved in nontraditional ways of solving problems,” Pittman said.
The fact that he reports directly to the chief gives minority populations a voice that often isn’t heard in police departments. When Pittman began giving a voice to minorities four years ago, Reno was only one of a dozen or so police departments in the United States to try the approach. More have since jumped aboard.
“Several years ago, we had a Hispanic festival in Reno,” Pittman said. “We knew that 60 percent of gang members were Hispanic. So we sent a CAT [a Community Action Team that fights gang violence] team to the festival. Everything went well.”
But by sending in the gang unit, the police department may have been sending a destructive message to the community. Pittman received a phone call in complaint.
“When I went to the Italian Festival, I saw police there,” a caller remarked. “But none of them wore a shirt that said ‘Gang Unit.'”
“I went into the chief’s office, told him the story and said, ‘They have a point,'” Pittman said. “Now, when we police a Hispanic event, we do it in regular uniform.”
Pittman is also proud of the relationship that the Reno Police Department has with the gay and lesbian community, a relationship that has been rocky in the past. Northern Nevada is often a difficult place for gay people—the NCCJ’s Bratiotis calls it the one thing the area can’t get over.
“We’re able to reconcile race or gender discrimination, but people are still not able to get it about gender orientation,” she said.
However, Reno police are “getting it” about gender orientation, said Pittman. He told of a recent incident, when a flag was stolen from in front of A Rainbow Place, a gay and lesbian community center. In another town, workers at a gay community center may not know if it’s safe to call the cops, but the director of A Rainbow Place called Pittman.
“Within an hour in briefings, the sergeant was telling patrolmen to watch this area, and we arrested the guy with the flag,” Pittman said.
The Reno police take hate crime seriously, said Ben Felix, executive director of A Rainbow Place. “Craig Pittman definitely has been responsive. The Reno police do a pretty good job.”
However, Felix is concerned about possible political attacks against gays during the next election, if intense rhetoric is used in another attempt to pass anti-gay marriage Question 2. Politics often turns to violence when hate is involved. “I worry that all this rhetoric from the extreme right will give license to those on the fringes who are open to bashing members of the community,” Felix said.
Felix has a dream of how Northern Nevada should respond to hate.
“Remember when the first Molotov cocktail was thrown last year at Temple Emanu-El? Then, 600 people turned out to support the temple—and then we went our separate ways. People coming together for one evening is not enough—we need to keep going. We need to let those on the hate fringes know that those types of behavior will not be tolerated in this state.”
Knowledge is tolerance
Standing together is important, but Beekun said the easiest way to respect each other is person-to-person. She tells of a Reno Palestinian girl going to a Jewish friend’s bas mitzvah, and the Jewish girl attending services at the mosque.
“With all that’s going on over there,” said Beekun, “these two girls were able to get together as friends. Why? Because they knew each other.”
Getting to know each other is not a passive activity, at least not for Beekun. She dresses in traditional Muslim garb for women called Hijab.
“And yes, I’ve been yelled at in the street,” she said. “But it’s mostly from kids who don’t know any better.”
One day some passing boys shouted “Hey, raghead!” at her.
“I tracked them down and asked if they didn’t realize how offensive that was. Now, they bike or drive by and wave," Beekun said. "It’s really hard to hate when you get to know each other."