Participants at a candlelight vigil for Richard Collins III watch as balloons are released in his memory. Prosecutors say Sean Urbanski killed Collins in a hate crime. Credit: Brian Witte/Associated Press

This week: The trouble with hate crime laws, a white supremacist’s bodyguard reportedly has ties to the military and how to fight back against hate.

The two incidents emerged in much the same way: Information trickled out. Facts were hard to come by. Motive was difficult to ascertain. Race seemed to play a role.

In Portland, Oregon, a former Marine shouted, unprovoked, at the staff of an Iraqi restaurant before throwing a chair at a waiter and injuring him. In Maryland, a white man screamed at a group of young men to move out of his way, before plunging a knife into the chest of a black university student.

Now, prosecutors have filed hate crime charges in both. But while the motives for the stabbing at the University of Maryland have reportedly become more clear, the reasoning behind the Portland attack has only become more hazy.

The two incidents highlight the complexity of hate-crime laws: prosecutors are supposed to divine what’s in an attacker’s heart and mind.

The attacker in the Portland incident, decorated Marine Sgt. Maj. Damien Rodriguez, is the subject of a story this week in The New York Times that asks: “A Marine Attacked an Iraqi Restaurant. But Was It a Hate Crime or PTSD?”

The story raises the question whether Rodriguez’s PTSD was to blame for the attack, rather than any hate.

Mr. Rodriguez, who is white, was raised by a Nigerian stepfather, married a Guatemalan woman, and for years relied on an Iraqi next-door neighbor to help his family when he was fighting overseas. He does not consider himself prejudiced.

“How can they say I hate Iraqis? I gave my soul for Iraq,” he said.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Maryland say their investigation has unearthed “plenty of evidence” that 22-year-old Sean Urbanski stabbed 23-year-old Richard Collins III because of his race.

Police originally said race wasn’t a factor in the unprovoked stabbing in May. That was despite evidence that Urbanski had recently joined a racist Facebook group called Alt Reich Nation. This appeared to be the only evidence prosecutors had that the crime was racially motivated, and back in May, we examined whether a Facebook “like” alone can be enough to prove motivation in a hate crime.

But now prosecutors say they have uncovered “lots and lots of digital evidence” taken from Urbanski’s phone and computer that point firmly toward race being the motivating factor in the attack. They say they’re “completely comfortable” with the indictment in this case and look forward to taking the case to trial.

Of course, prosecutors make lofty claims about their evidence all the time, and prosecutors haven’t released that information.

But Urbanski’s case, like Rodriguez’s, illustrates how the crucial factor in defining a hate crime is motive. And in defining motive, the details and background of the perpetrator’s life and actions are all-important.

Richard Spencer’s bodyguard is in the military

This week, Unicorn Riot dropped a pair of fascinating scoops.

The first story identified white supremacist Richard Spencer’s personal bodyguard as a member of the Alabama National Guard.

The bodyguard, identified as Brian Brathovd, reportedly hosts a neo-Nazi podcast called Salting the Earth under the pseudonym Caerulus Rex and has been photographed with Spencer at public events.

His identity was a mystery until Unicorn Riot found selfies showing Brathovd in his Army uniform, which displayed his name tag. Public records from the Charlottesville Police Department showed Unite the Right organizers identifying Brathovd as the Virginia event’s “highest ranking security” person.

Army policy says that “military personnel must reject participation in extremist organizations and activities.” A National Guard representative told Unicorn Riot they’re conducting an internal investigation of Brathovd.

The second story shows the violent rhetoric in the chats of the white supremacist group “Anti-Communist Action” between February and September. The primary theme: a desire to injure or kill leftists and antifa, generally justified under the pretext of self-defense.

For example, one user suggested bombing “a major federal building” as a way to push “the desert invader” out of the United States. Another recommended learning how to construct homemade bombs by watching Islamic State training videos and then detonating the device in the middle of an antifa protest – “Boston bomber style.”

On Wednesday, Unicorn Riot unveiled a searchable database of the chat logs. That database is available here.

Fighting back against hate  

  • Music in Common, a nonprofit that uses music education to combat hate, had a grant pulled by the Trump administration. The group spent months trying to find a way to plug the funding hole, then its community stepped in, raising some $50,000 with the help of folk music icon James Taylor.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions has personally ordered a top Department of Justice hate crimes lawyer to help local officials in Iowa prosecute the man accused of murdering a transgender teen. The move is a sign that Sessions may be serious in his pledge to protect trans people against hate crimes, however, some trans rights advocates are skeptical.
  • A leading British neo-Nazi organizer publicly renounced the movement he spent decades helping build in an interview with the U.K.’s Channel 4. He came out as being both gay and of Jewish heritage.

Also: Last week’s Hate Report incorrectly identified the nationality of the suspected Tennessee church shooter. He is from Sudan. We’re sorry about the error.

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Have a hate incident to report? Tell us about it here, or contact The Hate Report team: Aaron Sankin can be reached at asankin@revealnews.org, and Will Carless can be reached at wcarless@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @asankin and @willcarless.

 

Will Carless was a correspondent for Reveal covering extremism. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia and South America. Prior to joining Reveal, he was a senior correspondent for Public Radio International’s Global Post team based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before that, Will spent eight years at the Voice of San Diego, where he worked as an investigative reporter and head of investigations. During his tenure in San Diego, Will was awarded several prizes, including a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has been a finalist for the Livingston Awards for young journalists twice in the last five years. He surfs, spends time with his family, travels to silly places and pretends he’s writing a novel.

Aaron Sankin is a reporter for Reveal covering online extremism, election administration and technology policy. Before joining Reveal, he was a founding editor of The Huffington Post's San Francisco vertical and a senior staff writer on The Daily Dot's politics team. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Time, The Motley Fool, Mashable, Business Insider, San Francisco magazine and The Onion. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Sankin studied history and sociology at Rice University. His work at The Daily Dot was a finalist in Digiday's 2015 publisher of the year award, and a story he wrote about a Midwestern family being terrorized by a teenage hacker was labeled by The Atlantic as an essential piece of journalism for 2015. Sankin is based in Seattle.