The headlines made it clear this year.
The past 12 months saw a rise in how often local residents heard about events that could be deemed hate crimes, hate speech or acts threatening to minorities or people of certain religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds.
Some were difficult to forget: A group of men allegedly bringing weapons to a Black Lives Matter protest in Troy. KKK supporters meeting at a park in Fort Plain. A suspect fire-bombing a woman’s car in Schenectady after she broke up an altercation. A neighbor posting racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic signs on his lawn in Schoharie County.
But experts say these types of crimes and events — especially domestic terrorism — have risen nationally, with hate crimes increasing under former President Trump’s administration. The Capital Region, too, is no exception.
Even when these incidents may seem like one-time problems in their respective towns, cities or counties, activists and experts say they’re part of a much larger, systemic problem.
“It is a very sophisticated recruitment and brainwashing that’s occurring with groups that have traditionally been fringe and now are accepted more mainstream,” said Robert R. Griffin, dean of University at Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity and a former employee of the Department of Homeland Security. “So you start to see the ridiculous conspiracy theories, actually really taking on an awful lot of credence. It’s increasing. When I was at the [Department of Homeland Security], we were looking at radicalization. A lot of work was going into research there.”
In 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 37 hate groups operate throughout New York State and 838 total across the U.S. While no groups were based directly in the Capital Region, a handful are marked as statewide groups.
And back in November, the FBI released its 2019 hate crime statistics. The crimes, which were at their highest level in over a decade, included 51 murders and 7,314 other hate crimes in the U.S., up from 7,120 the year before, but still under the 7,783 recorded in 2008. According to the FBI’s data, a total of 164 race/ethnicity/ancestry-based hate crime incidents and 357 religion-based hate crime incidents were reported in New York in 2019. Five race/ethnicity/ancestry-based hate crimes were reported in the city of Albany, and one in Schenectady County.
This data also showed that, during former President Trump’s administration, hate crimes increased nearly 20%, with 7,314 incidents reported in 2019, up from 6,121 incidents in 2016. Some people say the rising numbers are not a coincidence.
“Trump probably brought a lot of it out to the surface, you know. People felt it was safe to say certain things and do certain acts,” said Alice Green, a longtime activist, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany. “There’s a long history of that, as I said before, it’s not something that just happened yesterday.”
When observing these statistics, it’s important to understand the definition of hate crimes, said Sarah Ruane, public affairs specialist at the Albany office of the FBI. For the purpose of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate itself, however, is not a crime.
On June 6, a group of KKK supporters flocked to Haslett Park in Fort Plain, following a day-long Black Lives Matter protest. Some left KKK stickers around the area and allegedly waved knives.
This isn’t the only time KKK supporters have appeared in the region. In Saratoga Springs, KKK fliers were left on residents’ car windshields in 2018, while other KKK fliers were found on cars in a village parking lot in Fort Plain and on porches and lawns in Gloversville in 2017.
But one BLM protester during the June 6 incident, Tiffany Boyer, said that a man wearing a KKK shirt chest-bumped her and spit at her face, which a Gazette reporter confirmed after viewing a recording. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s office said they’ve had no KKK-related incidents reported throughout the county since then. Fort Plain Police Chief Ryan Austin said victims of the June 6 attack did not come in to speak with police after being invited to do so. He said he has not received KKK-related reports since.
While these incidents may happen a handful of times in different local towns or cities, often times months or years apart, they’re still part of this larger, systemic problem, Green said.
“People tend to say, ‘Oh, it’s just one bad apple in our community’ when no, it’s here in our community,” Green said. “I’m from the North Country. I’ve lived with this all my life, where I was deeply embedded in a particular society and a particular area of the state where they hate and they fear different people, particularly Black people. So we always have to be vigilant. We always have to try to get people to acknowledge that it’s not just a single incident that’s happening, but it’s unfortunately part of our culture in our society, that there are people with these fears that are possible terrorists, who will act on them.”
Melanie Trimble, Capital Region Chapter Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said it isn’t possible to “police our way” out of these problems.
“These attacks are very alarming and upsetting,” Trimble said. “We need to call out white supremacy when we see it and call out attacks against protesters for providing racial justice. We don’t need laws to find solutions to these things, we need institutions and leadership — especially police — to take threats seriously and respond correctly to situations that arise. The police response to Black Lives Matter marches this summer demonstrated a willingness to crack down on political messages from people of color. We need the authorities in place to do their job and contribute to safety rather than turning a blind eye to one-sided racial violence.”
Although KKK supporters may not have publicly gathered recently to the knowledge of authorities, within four months of the rally in Fort Plain, a number of alarming acts of violence against people of color or racist displays have since taken place around the region.
In early June, after breaking up an altercation when a group of white men began to hurl slurs in Schenectady following a peaceful protest, resident Jahonna Chaires’ car was firebombed as she was sleeping. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives then began an investigation, and a Schenectady Police spokesperson confirmed that an individual was arrested in connection with the explosion. In October, Joel Malek, 42, of Schenectady was charged with possession of an “improvised incendiary device” commonly known as a “Molotov cocktail” on June 5. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of New York said he could not comment on whether this case was related to the June firebombing, although the Times Union reported Malek’s involvement with a law enforcement source in October.
That same month, a Sharon Springs resident’s racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic lawn signs prompted an outcry from neighbors. Signs read “white power” and used prejudiced terms against both Black and Jewish people, and the LGBTQ community. Schoharie County Undersheriff Duane Tillapuagh said the signs belonged to Joe Hanley, of 127 Church St. in Carlisle. He said the signs were protected speech under the First Amendment.
“This guy is exercising his freedom of speech, and, you know, if our office could literally do anything about it we would,” Tillapuagh said back in June. “We think it’s disgusting … and apparently that’s his mentality about how things should be in this day and age, and we wholeheartedly disagree.”
The signs have since been removed, according to Sharon Springs Mayor Doug Plummer. Despite the complaints locally regarding such signs, hate speech is still protected speech, Ruane said.
“I think a lot of people see hateful comments and hateful actions and want to see arrests or actions,” Ruane said. But, “it doesn’t break the law. It’s just that we know that the constitution provides that right.”
The FBI only steps in when such comments cross over into acts or threats of violence, she said. Ruane declined to discuss any specific or ongoing investigations.
Another recent notable incident happened an hour drive east from Sharon Springs.
On June 7, a member of a “fatigue clad group” — seven men at a rally, all dressed in military-style body armor and wearing bulletproof vests — was stopped by Troy police while allegedly carrying a weapon near a protest against police brutality. He was charged with a felony weapons count. Noah Latham, 22, then left the U.S. Army on Aug. 31, according to reports. He allegedly was carrying a semi automatic “ghost gun” on his waistband, a partially assembled firearm that buyers then complete with additional parts.
Latham was one of five people arrested for allegedly carrying a weapon to or around the protest that day, according to Rensselaer County Chief Asst. District Attorney Matthew B. Hauf. Latham’s felony case is still pending and his next court appearance is scheduled for March 11.
Shawn Fleming, 33, and Nathaniel Shepard, 31, were originally charged with several felonies and were in possession of illegal weapons and high-capacity magazines. Both weapons were forfeited and destroyed by police. Fleming and Shepard pled guilty to criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree and were fined $1,000 each along with a conditional discharge of no new arrests for a year.
Also arrested were Shane Fleming and Shebi Vanderbogart, who resolved their cases on Feb. 11. Hauf said he couldn’t disclose information pertaining to either as their cases were “sealed.”
The rise of social media has made it easier for individuals to associate with groups with the intent of causing terror, Griffin said.
“When you do have disenfranchised folks, they feel that the government is bad, or somebody’s trying to take away their guns,” Griffin said. “And they’re actually able to take what’s a crazy conspiracy theory. It’s easy to do, because you can do it from your pajamas, sitting behind your computer. You start to see the ability through social media, and other platforms for people to organize around some of these crazy ideas, where in the past that was really difficult to do.”
More than 3,000 anti-Asian attacks have been reported nationwide to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian American Pacific Islanders, and other advocacy groups since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. These numbers follow the 100 annual incidents that were reported in earlier years. From 2019 to 2020, New York City went from three incidents to 27, Los Angeles went from seven to 15, and Denver had three incidents in 2020, its first since 2014, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, California State University, San Bernardino.
Angie Chung, a sociology professor at the state University of New York at Albany, is currently working on a research project entitled The Impact of COVID-19 on Racial Belonging and Well-Being Among Asian/American Students in New York State, and has interviewed between 60 and 70 UAlbany students about their encounters with racism and targeted attacks since the spring.
“We had a really disturbing number of anecdotes among students we spoke with of being perceived as ‘virus carriers’ and being subject to derogatory remarks in public spaces, like bus shelters or even at their workspaces,” Chung said. “There’s one woman who was almost not physically attacked enough to report it per se, but she was pushed around by a man in the supermarket.”
Chung’s research will look at the treatment of both Asian American and International students at UAlbany, extending from physical attacks to microaggressions to labels of “Chinese virus” — a phrase that has been used by both Trump and other Republican lawmakers — directed toward Asian students. She said most of the incidents she heard about took place off campus since not many students are walking the halls, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still targeted.
“We’re dealing with the young population but they’ll attack the most vulnerable,” Chung said. “They’ve been attacking elderly people, which is just really sad, but they know that they’re the most vulnerable, they’re easy to attack. And so these nationwide stories focus on those populations, but it’s clear that even among young college students that there’s a sense of fear of going out in public spaces. There’s just so many levels to this from microaggressions to blatant physical or verbal abuse from mostly strangers, but certainly a few incidents where it was among their peer group.”
Remarks or actions directed toward Asian Capital Region residents, too, is not uncommon. Even back in March, Chinese restaurant owners told The Daily Gazette that business plummeted by 50% after news came out about the virus’ origin was in China.
“We’ve always had these periods of peak ‘Yellow Peril’ waves, where there was just a lot of nativism and racism against Asian Americans throughout history,” Chung said. “And so it’ll peak for a while. It’s always existed. And there’s always an undercurrent, but I think right now, there’s just so many things going on that I can’t see it subsiding anytime soon, unfortunately.”
But not all instances intended to cause terror are defined as domestic terrorism, according to Ruane, who said the definition the FBI uses is that it must “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state,” or appear or be intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population and influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
In 2020, the U.S. government charged more than 120 domestic terrorism suspects. In the years leading up to 2020, between 2017 and 2019, the FBI arrested fewer domestic terrorism suspects.
Just last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that domestic terrorism has been “metastasizing across the country for a long time now,” while discussing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“At the FBI, we’ve been sounding the alarm on it for a number of years now,” Wray said.
Other alleged hate-based instances, not involving violence, have also become more recognizable locally.
On July 7, the Clifton Park town skatepark was closed temporarily after people vandalized the facility by dumping construction materials and using graffiti, which included a noose.
Two months later, on Sept. 10, a white Ballston Lake man was charged with a hate crime after spray painting racial slurs on a Black man’s car, according to Saratoga County Sheriff’s officials. Thomas J. Hunt, 31, of Gretel Terrace was charged with one count of second-degree criminal mischief as a hate crime, a felony. The spray-painting happened at a business in the Northway 10 Industrial Park, 107 Pierce Road, Clifton Park, officials said, and on an employee’s vehicle. Hunt was arraigned and released to later appear in court, but has not since Clifton Park Town Court has been closed because of COVID.
“We do know that with today’s attacks, it’s not new,” Green said. “It’s just that they’ve been able to get more attention to it. We go back, way back, to when the Ku Klux Klan had a rally in Albany. We worked on that. But we’re now looking at the white supremacy and conspiracy theories, because people are very fearful. And we notice that there’s always been backlash when Black people advance or there’s a fear on the part of a white supremacist that the influence of Black people in terms of getting power, winning elections or being treated equally. I think so many people now are fearful that, in a few years, white people will be in the minority, I think it really scares them.”
Green’s organization, which has been focusing on race issues related to policing, civil rights and human rights since 1985, while looking at the criminal justice system and its impact on people of color, doesn’t focus on any particular incidents of hate speech or hate crimes unless brought to its attention. But the Center does discuss them at times and started a website, TimeForReckoning.org, which aims to point out systemic racism in the community. This allows locals to find resources to become better informed in conversations about law enforcement and policies.
“We have some surveys to get a sense of how people feel about public safety and whether they trust law enforcement or not,” Green said. “We do a number of community meetings, we do book reviews, when there’s an issue around this… But we just think that we have to continue focusing our attention on this problem, because it’s real. And we’ve got to acknowledge that it exists, and it exists in our community.”
To address it before it starts, Griffin said that radicalization — the process by which one adopts radical views in opposition to a political, social, or religious status quo — begins when people are young, often children, and can lead to acts like domestic terrorism.
“With parents, it’s understanding what your children are looking at, and understanding that a lot of radicalization starts young,” Griffin said. “And the interesting trend is that if you take the playbook that ISIS and those groups have used, it’s actually been replicated by our own domestic terrorists. So when you’re looking at how they’re creating this sort of organizational philosophy, they become very, very cultish.”
In terms of how to get involved in raising awareness about hate crimes and hate speech in the Capital Region, Green said acknowledgement is only the first step.
“There are these people in our community,” Green said. “You might not know who they are. But there are often signs that people harbor racism, fear and hate. And we have to also take opportunities to teach the history of attacks on Black people and other minority groups. It’s not something that just happened yesterday. And we need to focus on law enforcement, but there are other institutions where the community could be focused on fighting racism, not only in law enforcement, but in areas in education, in economics, housing, all across the board. And I think there is a need to track some of these hate groups if it’s possible. We need to track them and hold them accountable.”