Former skinhead, attorneys weigh in on fighting hate at Town Hall event
While hateful speech is not a punishable crime, it can lead to violence and should be addressed, according to panel.
Tony McAleer knows exactly what goes on in the mind of a racist and anti-Semite. For 15 years, McAleer was an organizer for the White Aryan Resistance, a skinhead recruiter and a Holocaust denier.
He also knows how to reverse that thinking.
Single fatherhood, love for his children — and help from a Jewish therapist — eventually led McAleer away from the life of a white supremacist and toward the establishment of a nonprofit to help others leave hate groups.
McAleer offered a unique perspective as one of five panelists at a Feb. 26 Town Hall event, “Working Together to End Hate,” presented by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PNC at the Heinz History Center.
In the wake of the Oct. 27 attack by a suspected white supremacist at the Tree of Life synagogue building, the panel was convened to discuss how to stop the scourge of hate crimes in the United States. David Shribman, executive editor emeritus of the Post-Gazette, moderated the event, which attracted a crowd of 600 people.
“We have empty hearts, but no empty seats,” Shribman told the audience.
McAleer spoke of his difficult childhood and of later finding “a sense of power when I felt powerless” in the white supremacist movement.
Twenty years ago, he said, “I would have thought [this conversation] was a waste of time. I would have thought that you all are a bunch of idiots. But listening to it now, it’s so important to have this discussion.
“There are two ways to be,” McAleer added. “Everything we do in life is either born out of love, or it’s born out of fear. So how do we have an impact on society around us? I think we have to take leadership in our individual lives to inspire people to operate from the place of love, to operate from the place of compassion.”
Others on the panel agreed that change starts with the individual, and that everyone is responsible for working toward the elimination of hate.
“The name of the topic tonight, ‘Working Together to End Hate,’ — it’s impossible for one organization, one president, one attorney general to make progress on this,” said Michael Lieberman, the director of the Civil Rights Planning Center of the Anti-Defamation League. Lieberman has spent 36 years at the ADL studying hate crimes and helping to get state hate crime legislation passed.
“Between 50 and 80 percent of all religion-based hate crimes since 1990 are committed against Jews and Jewish institutions,” he noted. “You don’t have to work for the Anti-Defamation League to be disturbed by that fact.”
David Hickton, a U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2016, urged the audience to become “outraged equally by hate against blacks, hate against Asians, hate against women, hate against religious groups.”
He said that during his tenure as a U.S. attorney, he prosecuted seven cross-burning cases and was unable to stop three major KKK rallies near Pittsburgh. There was little publicity and little “community outrage” regarding those events, he said.
“The tragedy at the Tree of Life in October is unspeakably sad to me in a way I can’t access, and in some ways am afraid to access,” Hickton said. “It is the worst event of its kind in the world, but the sad fact is, you all know, we have had other events like that here.”
He pointed to Richard Baumhammers’ ethnically motivated killing spree in Pittsburgh in 2000 and the 2009 murders of women at a fitness center in the South Hills.
“No matter your political point of view, no matter where you come from, it would seem to me we ought to be able to work together to develop a consensus that hate is totally unacceptable,” Hickton said. “And while we have all these laws to work on it, the best practice would be to go upstream and stop people from acting on their hate and not have to prosecute the case after we have to clean up the scene.”
Hate for one group of people often transitions to hate for another group as well, explained Roy Austin, former deputy assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“When we hate people who are from different countries or hate people because they speak different languages or hate people because of their sexual orientation or because of their gender, whatever it is, it feeds into the other hate,” Austin said. “My personal belief — and I don’t have the data to back it up — is we are in a time in America now where it is acceptable to hate and have hateful language, and there are going to be people who act on that hateful language, and that’s what we are seeing with this uptick in hate crimes.”
It is imperative for people to “look at what we have in common, not what is different,” urged panelist Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Pittsburgh. “If we could just learn to be together and respect each other, we could be a much better place.”
She suggested people of different races “start by living in the same neighborhoods.”
While hate speech does not generally rise to the level of a hate crime, panel members agreed that speech is often a precipitator to crimes and must be addressed.
“You are hurting someone whether [hate speech] is a hate crime or not,” said Bush. “And so a crime takes it to a certain level, but you are placing pain upon someone just by your actions before it becomes a crime. At Tree of Life, the man who walked in obviously had a hate for Jewish people before he walked in. But when the violence came out everything changed.”
President Donald Trump bears responsibility for rhetoric which can contribute to an atmosphere that fosters hate, some panelists opined.
Even before he became president, “Donald Trump created an environment where hate was more acceptable than we should tolerate,” charged Hickton. “And I believe it has gotten worse since he became president. I think nobody wants to go so far to say he lit a match that caused what happened [at Tree of Life], but we all know it was a fake caravan and we all know the words of the terrible person who did that deed relate back to that. So words matter when you are in public life.”
There is a “danger,” however, in assuming “that the problem will go away if [Trump] goes away,” cautioned McAleer. “It’s not. He’s a symptom of what’s underlying it.
“When populism shows up, you know there is something systemically wrong happening in society,” he continued. “What were the conditions in society that allowed someone like Donald Trump to be elected?” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.