There’s been a lot of conversation about whether Donald Trump has inspired a new wave of hate in America.
Reveal reporter Will Carless set out to understand the president’s role in hundreds of hate incidents across the country, with help from the Documenting Hate project led by ProPublica. He found a striking pattern that extended across races, religions and sexual orientation.
We also check in with Reveal reporter Aaron Sankin about what’s going on inside the government agency that’s supposed to be fighting discrimination, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
This episode also examines what it means – and what it takes – for people on the sidelines of hate speech incidents to act not only as bystanders, but also as allies. We discuss ways people are pushing back against what they consider a toxic social climate. In a lively, provocative Q&A, Reveal host Al Letson speaks with a safety pin wearer who stood up to a harasser and a creator of the Safety Pin Box (a “social justice tool kit” available through monthly subscriptions) about good intentions and the complicated dynamics of becoming an ally to people on the outs.
Today’s show was produced by Michael Montgomery, Cat Schuknecht and Amy Walters, and edited by Cheryl Devall.
Reported by Will Carless and Aaron Sankin.
Thanks to Andy Donohue and John O’Leary for their help on this week’s show.
Special thanks to ProPublica for running the Documenting Hate project and creating an animated video for the project.
Our sound design team is Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
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Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
I grew up in the South and as a black man, I don’t remember a time I haven’t heard racial slurs. Now it didn’t happen every day, but every now and then that ugliness would pop up and would remind me of where I was. I don’t mean the South, I mean America.
We like to think that as a society we’ve come a long way, and we have, but lately that ugliness that many thought we left behind seems to be popping up with more frequency.
Before we get started, a warning, some of the speech in the following story gets really ugly. Over the past 18 months the people we’ve spoken with have reported hearing stuff like this:
Aaliyah: Then he said, “I’ll shoot as many black people as they want in the back.”
Mohammad Q.: Dirty Muslims, terrorist.
Speaker 2: She said, “Why don’t you go the fuck back to China or wherever you came from.”
Mohammad Q.: Get your ass back to your country, all you immigrants.
Al Letson: Advocacy groups report rising incidences of Islamophobia, antisemitism, violence and intolerance against the LGBTQ community. To dive into the numbers, Reveal’s collaborating on a project called Documenting Hate.
Last year, the non-profit newsroom ProPublica started collecting a count of hate speech and hate crimes across the country. Reveal’s Hate and Extremism reporter Will Carless dove into more than 4,000 of those incidents. As he sifted, one word surfaced early and forcefully.
Speaker 3: Trump.
Mohammad Q.: Trump, Trump, Trump.
Speaker 4: Trump.
Speaker 1: Trump.
Al Letson: More than 300 people reported that they directly experienced or witnessed verbal attacks explicitly in the name of the president. Will followed up with more than 150 of those from 39 states, either by speaking with the victims, or witnesses, or by matching the incidents with news reports or other documentation. Here’s more of what will found out.
Will Carless: The 45th president, Donald J Trump, launched his political career by challenging the citizenship and legitimacy of the 44th president, Barack Obama.
Donald Trump: People are trying to figure out why isn’t he giving his birth certificate. It’s not a birth certificate.
Will Carless: Then as he announced his campaign for the White House, he stereotyped Mexican immigrants.
Donald Trump: They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some I assume are good people.
Will Carless: The first part of that message resonated with elements of Trump’s base.
Speaker 6: Build the wall, build the wall, build the wall.
Will Carless: After he became president, the New York Times reported Trump saying the 15,000 Haitian immigrants who’d received visas for the United States all have AIDs. CBS News reported Trump’s remark that Nigerians who emigrate to the US only do so by leaving huts behind.
Participants in a White House meeting on immigration say they heard the president use an obscenity to describe Caribbean and African nations. Trump’s denied all of these statements, but here’s how he criticized the lottery for US visas for people from developing countries.
Donald Trump: They’re not giving you their best names. Common sense means they’re not giving you their best names, they’re giving you people that they don’t want.
Will Carless: American politics have been full of racialized dog whistles. Democratic and Republican candidates have defended state sovereignty to maintain segregation and to fend off federal civil rights laws.
Appealing to the so-called silent majority, white Americans weary of federal efforts to address racial inequality, helped Republican Richard Nixon win the presidency in 1968. Other candidates have harped on undeserving welfare queens and raised the specter of hardened criminals released from prison to rape and murder.
Unlike earlier politicians, Trump doesn’t bother with coding his language. Like players in a twisted game of telephone, his followers have aimed similar language at people they say don’t belong in this country.
Melissa Johnson: That’s when he yelled at me, “Fucking nigger, go back to Africa. The slave ship is loading up. Trump!”, specifically yelled out Trump with his arm out the air.
Will Carless: In San Diego, Melissa Johnson tells me how she just emerged from a Trader Joe’s grocery store when a stranger driving a new looking BMW slowed down and shouted at her.
Melissa Johnson: I was in complete shock.
Will Carless: Melissa’s almost 40. She’s dealt with bias pretty much her entire life, but the signals used to be subtle. Security guards keeping a close watch in her at Nordstrom’s, an elderly woman in the elevator clutching her handbag a little bit tighter.
Melissa Johnson: These people, like I said, were hidden under rocks, hiding in caves. They weren’t saying anything, they were keeping to themselves in their garages, saluting to their flags or whatever.
Will Carless: These days their statements in public and on social media strike her like hatred with a presidential seal of approval.
Melissa Johnson: Now, now that they have a leader in office, now they’re able to do whatever they want. That’s exactly how I feel is that Trump has given these people so much power that they feel as thought they’re also running the country.
That’s what’s changed, is that these horrible, ugly people now have a voice. I’m so tired of hearing it because I’ve heard it my entire life. It was whispers before, now they’re yelling.
Will Carless: She says the words from the BMW driver stung.
Melissa Johnson: He was obviously an idiot.
Will Carless: What happened next was almost worse.
Melissa Johnson: To have people, at least 20 people, standing around outside just staring and not saying anything, not defending me, nothing. I was like, “What? Really? I guess I’m just going to go back to my car.” I sat in my car and I cried, I cried.
Will Carless: As I reported this story, one thing became very clear; when the most powerful man on Earth
Donald Trump: Donald J Trump,
Will Carless: Makes a statement,
Donald Trump: Is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.
Will Carless: His followers are willing to echo it out in the open.
Speaker 7: Fuck you loser, fuck you and your family you terrorist fuck. Video all you want, you’re an Arab, you’re a fucking loser. Trump is president asshole, so you can kiss you’re fucking visa goodbye scumbag.
Mohammad Q.: All I can say again, when somebody says something like that you become very hurt and it feels like you’re not from this country, through you are. You’re a citizen of this country, you’re staying over here, you’re doing everything for this country, you feel very bad.
Will Carless: Mohammad Qureshi is a manager at a Washington DC area Marriott hotel. He says that before, during, and after the election he faced so many anti-Muslim taunts. He briefly changed his name tag from Mohammad to John.
Mohammad Q.: This is my home, this is my country. I can do anything for my country. When someone comes and say, “You’re an immigrant, you have to go back”, that’s makes me like in tears. I will admit to being in tears a couple times.
Will Carless: Mohammad places the blame squarely on the new president.
Mohammad Q.: Since Trump and his campaign and everything, all the hatred is coming out now against the Muslims.
Will Carless: As I called more than 80 people from California to Maine, they said they also believed their tormentors felt emboldened, empowered, granted impunity. I heard this from Muslims and Jews, from gay men and lesbians, and Latinos and Asian Americans, even from a couple of white people who said they thought harassers singled them out just because they thick dark curly hair.
Why should it matter if people are shouting nasty things at each other and saying Trumps name when they do it? Beyond the lapse in common courtesy, words do hurt and scare people. I spoke with many who like Melissa felt deeply upset and unsafe after unprovoked confrontations with name callers.
There’s also strong evidence that along with slinging hateful words, more people are acting on hateful intentions in the name of Trump. Remember for example how a protestor was killed and dozens more people were hurt during a right wing rally last August in Charlottesville, Virginia?
Heidi Beirich: Trump’s words and Trump’s targets have had a real world effect in terms of crime.
Will Carless: Heidi Beirich heads the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Heidi Beirich: There are many instances in that data where the person committing the crime, the hate crime, was specifically inspired by Trump. They either use Trump’s name, they have Trump on their social media feeds; there are indications that the connection is exact.
Will Carless: The 150 cases I studied included several violent incidents, like one last February when a man on a scooter ran a gay couple off the road in Florida after screaming, “You live in Trump country now.” Or a case in Texas where a white man yelling, “This is for Trump”, beat up a Latino man.
Heidi says law enforcement agencies collect such inconsistent data on hate crimes, we simply don’t know how many take place.
Heidi Beirich: The FBI only reports about 6,000 a year. The Bureau of Justice statistics has been clear that there are about 250,000 hate crimes a year in the US.
Will Carless: That research arm of the Federal Justice Department concedes that people also tend to under report these crimes. The department describes these acts as physical harm and criminal threats based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
White supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke rejoiced at the result of the last presidential election. To them Trump clearly embodied their world view that for America to return to greatness, white people would need to maintain their social, economic, and political power over people of other races.
Brian Levin: For the first time we really saw a successful candidate coalesce extreme white nationalists into a real tangible sociopolitical movement.
Will Carless: Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University San Bernardino has spent decades studying trends in hate. He has a theory about why so many people who fear a changing America consider the 45th president an ally.
Brian Levin: 36% of Americans say whites are under attack, 14% say whites are under attack and people of color aren’t because of demographic political conditions, terrorism, immigration. When they had an outspoken unusual iconoclastic leader, they found it in Donald Trump.
I am not saying, this will be for [inaudible 00:11:24] to debate, about the president’s own feelings. What I can tell you is, they’ve been interpreted by and a coalescing force for legions of white nationalists who have been organizing in ways that we haven’t seen in decades.
Will Carless: For this story, I left several phone and email messages with the White House and got no response. Some of the president’s supporters pledge to act on their interpretations of what he said, including at an extreme that the idea that America’s a white country created by and for white people.
Speaker 8: Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.
Will Carless: In various forms, that message has even made it’s way into the classrooms of kids as young as elementary school.
Khalil: He said, “This is Trump’s wall.”
Will Carless: 10 year old Khalil Stevens-Roesener tells me how just after the election a kid in his class stacked building blocks into walls so he could separate the white students from their black and Latino schoolmates in the Denver suburb of Arvada, Colorado.
Khalil’s parent, Jorie Stevens and Tori Roesener adopted Khalil and his two siblings about seven years ago. Back then, this couple felt pretty hopeful about raising three black kids in a town that’s 1% African American.
Jorie Stevens: They had an amazing example of a president and how you should behave, and that president looked like them. He was educated, and he took care of all people.
Will Carless: The most recent election changed the social equation for all three Stevens-Roesener kids. Khalil’s 13 year old sister Aaliyah describes what a classmate told her shortly after Trump became president.
Aaliyah: He said, “I’ll shoot as many black people as I want in the back.”
Will Carless: Then this happened to the middle child, 11 year old Chris.
Chris: These kids, they thought it was funny to be saying the N word and they started saying it around me.
Will Carless: Like other families I’ve talked with, the Stevens-Roeseners say what happened at their kid’s schools reflects an atmosphere they call toxic.
Tara, who’s Korean American, was adopted into a white family. She, her wife, and kids like to visit her parents at their house about 15 minutes away.
Tara Roesener: Yes, somebody in our family wanted to hang the Confederate flag. I said, “We’re not coming over if you hang the Confederate flag, not while it’s hanging, but never again.” They said, “But it’s a symbol.” I said, “Correct, it’s a symbol of hatred.”
Will Carless: Jorie says the resurgence of symbols and language they object to requires a lot of energy to fight each day.
Jorie Stevens: You just need to push harder, and you need to make it better for your children. They need to be able to live comfortably in the skin they’re in everywhere that they go.
Will Carless: In the present atmosphere, hate crimes can follow hate speech. The fear born from that hate may be impossible to measure, but it’s enough to keep 10 year old Khalil Stevens-Roesener awake and worried.
Khalil: At nighttime I think about what could happen if Trump really did succeed in what he was planning to do, which he hopefully won’t.
Will Carless: What do you think Trump wants to do?
Khalil: I’m going to say it like this, he’s trying to create a white world.
Al Letson: Reveal’s Will Carless brought us this story. Special thanks to our partners on this story, ProPublica. They put together an animated video you can see on our Facebook or Twitter feed.
When we come back, we hear from a Trump true believer who helped pave his way to the White House.
Roger Stone: Politics has always been brutal in the United States, American’s love a fight.
Al Letson: You’re listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigating Reporting and PRX.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Before the break we heard from Will Carless on how some of President Trump’s supporters feel inspired to spread hateful messages. Will tried to reach the president for comment, but the White House didn’t respond to his calls and emails.
Last summer, I spoke to someone pretty familiar with the ins and outs of the president’s approach to politics, former Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone. When did you first meet Mr. Trump?
Roger Stone: I met him in 1979 when I was sent to New York to organize Governor Reagan’s campaign for president.
Al Letson: What made you think he could be a politician?
Roger Stone: He has a certain …
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Al: What made you think he could be a politician?
Roger Stone: He has a certain charisma, a certain magnetism, although it’s greater than that.
Al: The Wall Street Journal reports that special investigator Robert Mueller is investigating any links between Stone and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Wikileaks released that trove of Democratic National Committee emails before the 2016 election. While Stone has criticized Trump, he told us he counts him as a long time friend.
Roger Stone: He’s tall, he’s magnetic, it’s really hard to put your finger on.
Al: Stone also told me what he’s learned by working with former presidents.
Roger Stone: Politics has always been brutal in the United States. It’s the way we like it. People like the conflict. They like a fight. Americans love a fight.
Al: So, you didn’t start the dirty tricks, you just continued the legacy of it.
Roger Stone: Well, I just took them into the internet age, I guess. No, politics has always been rough and tumble. One man’s dirty trickster is another man’s freedom fighter.
Al: Stone describes himself as a dirty trickster who learned his trade from a master.
Roger Stone: When you bore the voters, they look elsewhere to someone or a candidate who is more interesting.
Al: You have an office, it’s filled with Nixon memorabilia. You have a huge tattoo of Nixon on your back. You use Nixon’s signature two hands up. Clearly, he’s a really big influence on your life.
Roger Stone: Yeah, he is, I think now, with the benefit of retrospection, he’s one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had.
Al: So, there was a campaign strategy that Nixon used called the Southern Strategy, which used race as a wedge issue on matters such as segregation and busing to appeal to white southerners. In 2005, Ken Melman, head of the RNC apologized for it, but in the 2016 election, Trump, and by virtue, you, seemed to use the same strategy, but you expanded it to include Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, is that a dirty trick?
Roger Stone: First of all, I reject your analysis of Nixon’s campaign strategy in 1968.
Al: Historians look back at what happened during the Nixon campaign and they tagged it as the Southern Strategy, it’s not recent.
Roger Stone: Historians are by and large, liberals and that is a biased view.
Al: But in 2005, Ken Melman, who was the head of the RNC, apologized for it, specifically for Nixon’s Southern Strategy, so …
Roger Stone: Mr. Melman speaks only for himself.
Al: I think at that time, he was speaking for the RNC.
Roger Stone: Well, that may be, and maybe there’s some calculation there. I don’t think when it comes to civil rights, Richard Nixon has anything to apologize for.
To bring it forward, to say that we should freeze immigration from certain countries until we have a better way of vetting and reviewing those who apply to come to this country, that’s not bigoted or racist, that’s common sense. Both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter did so in specific instances. In Carter’s case, blocking all immigration from Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis. Sealing our borders permanently from immigrants from those countries, that would be bigoted, but that’s not what the president has proposed.
Al: The president’s third attempt at a travel ban on six majority Muslim countries is in effect now, but 16 states are fighting it, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case this June. The president says the ban is necessary to protect the country, but all these states are calling it discrimination. So, I asked Stone if the president just wants to keep Muslim people out of the US.
Roger Stone: Yeah, I just don’t agree with that interpretation. I think this relates …
Al: It’s not my interpretation. Specifically what Trump is tweeting …
Roger Stone: Would you let 200,000 immigrants from Syria in without knowing who each one of them are? Disproportionately young men, by the way? Is there some possibility that some of them could be criminals or terrorists? Is that possible? I think it’s likely actually.
Al: I think that it’s a possibility that if you get any group of people together, there are going to be people in that group that have bad intentions, absolutely. I did an interview with a counter terrorism expert who said the number one terrorist in America are white men who are going out and stabbing people on trains, who are …
Roger Stone: That’s nonsense. Where are the crime statistics on that? Give me ten examples. Sorry, that’s nonsense. Look. This is really, really simple. We have seen a pattern of illegals killing people in this country.
Al: We’ve seen a pattern of every day Americans killing people. I’m saying in any population, you are going to have bad actors. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
Roger Stone: If one illegal immigrant kills one American citizen, then the system has failed.
Al: If one white supremacist …
Roger Stone: There are no white supremacists, my friend, this is a tiny microcosm of the United States. The Ku Klux Klan today is funded by the federal government. Those are all informants.
Al: Hold on, hold on. Let’s rewind a little bit. Let’s rewind. Let’s both of us take a deep breath, because I want to have a conversation, not an argument with you.
Roger Stone: I just can’t let you say … I can’t let you just say things that aren’t true, so go ahead.
Al: You just said that there are no white supremacists.
Roger Stone: There are virtually none. The whole notion that there’s some giant constituency of white supremacists in the country is a joke.
Al: I have interviewed white supremacists, and I can tell you that they’re there. There are white supremacist organizations. You can go online and find …
Roger Stone: Most of them are funded by the federal government. If you went to a Klan meeting today, most of the people there are government informants. This is a tiny group of freaks. This is a tiny group of misfits.
Al: Can we focus a little bit.
Roger Stone: I’m totally focused.
Al: Okay, so explain this to me then, because I want to hear you out and for you to explain … hold on, let me tell you what I don’t understand. I think right here, we’re going to disagree about whether there are white supremacists in this country. We can disagree about that.
What I don’t understand is you said most of the white supremacists that you see at a Ku Klux Klan rally are working for the government? Explain that to me.
Roger Stone: Yes. The government continues to pay people as informants and this has propped up that movement. I’m not going to say there are no white supremacists, that would be ridiculous.
Al: But you did say that.
Roger Stone: Okay, let me correct myself. There are virtually none. Sorry. Are you going to tell me that more people were killed in this country by white supremacists than illegal immigrants. Are you going to claim that? Because that’s false. That’s just not true. That’s just not true.
Al: I would say you can look at the history of this country and you can trace how white supremacists have terrorized people who are different in this country, minorities, have terrorized black people, have terrorized Latinos, have terrorized indigenous people in this country. It is a part of our history, and we can’t deny that.
Roger Stone: Maybe in the 1890s. I really think you’re seeing a tremendous problem that doesn’t really exist on a wholesale basis. First of all, I denounce white supremacists, I have nothing in common with them, but I have spoken all over the country and I’ve been to many, many, conservative meetings. I’ve never seen the people you’re talking about. I think they are a tiny minority, and I don’t know the counter terrorism expert you interviewed, so I can’t speak to his credentials.
Al: Let me explain this to you. I am an African American man who grew up in the South and I can tell you that I have seen white supremacists. I can tell you that they are as a large contingency of them in the south. I can tell you that they may not wear sheets, they may not burn crosses on your lawns, but they are there.
Roger Stone: And I can tell you as a white man who lives in Harlem, I am threatened all the time. All the time on the streets, so let’s not pretend that that problem doesn’t exist. This is a minority in both extremes.
Al: Okay. So, let’s do this. Let’s do this. Race in America is a complicated issue.
Roger Stone: Yes.
Al: It’s a very complicated issue and I live my life in one lens and you live it in another and we see the world differently. But, let me ask you this. I went and looked at your twitter feed and I saw some of the tweets that you have put out there and some of those tweets could be categorized as racist. I’m curious, you say you have nothing in common with white supremacists, but yet you tweeted Roland Martin saying, “Who is this stupid Negro Roland Martin, buffoon or a token buffoon.”
Roger Stone: I have actually apologized for that particular tweet, but just to point this out …
Al: There’s a lot of them though. There’s a lot of them.
Roger Stone: I was marching with Reverend Sharpton against New York State’s racist drug laws, the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws 15 years ago, so …
Al: Sure, sure, but so my question …
Roger Stone: I have supported every gay marriage initiative in the state of Florida where I’m a resident. Don’t call me a racist or a bigot, because I am neither, based on one tweet that was probably …
Al: Roger, let’s again, let’s breathe a little bit and get on the same level. I am asking about things that you tweeted.
Roger Stone: You asked about one tweet.
Al: I’ve got like five tweets and I’m asking …
Roger Stone: And we could go through them. I’ve been asked this a hundred times. I’ll give you the same answer I gave the other hundred times, yes. I’m sorry.
Al: These statements sound like racism.
Roger Stone: I see. Have you ever said anything you regretted in your long career, in your shorter career than mine?
Al: Oh my goodness, yes, I have absolutely said plenty of things that I’ve regretted and I’ve apologized for it.
Roger Stone: And I have apologized for that. It was intemperate and it was an error.
Al: An error, Roger Stone says. He may have made more than one error. A couple of years ago, he claimed that pro Trump Russians were behind emails that Wikileaks released during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. That’s why special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into Stone as a part of his investigation into Trump and Russia. Why should we believe you? One of Stone’s rules is deny, deny, deny. If that’s one of your rules …
Roger Stone: Unless you have some evidence to the contrary, you don’t have to believe me. You don’t even have to have me on your radio program. I put it out there. If you have some proof, I’d like to see it.
Al: That was former Trump advisor Roger Stone. To hear my full interview with him, check out our podcast.
Earlier this episode, we talked about how Americans echoing the president’s words have scared many people in this country. Some people who work under Trump feel that way too.
Sharon McGowan: We found ourselves almost whistling past the graveyard, trying to talk ourselves into feeling like it won’t be as bad as we feared that it might be.
Al: Sharon McGowan was a senior attorney at the Justice Department Civil Right’s Division, when Trump entered the White House and appointed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Given some of the things that both men have said and done, Sharon was worried about everything from LGBT rights to whether the government would abandon efforts to deal with police violence.
Since then, Jeff Sessions has overseen some big changes and morale in the department has plummeted. Reveal’s Aaron Sankin has been looking at how all of this could affect civil rights in America. Hey Aaron.
Aaron: Hey Al.
Al: So, the civil rights division has investigated the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, and police departments for violating the rights of minorities like Ferguson Missouri. What’s the difference under president Trump and attorney general Sessions?
Aaron: Recently, a document leaked out of the Justice Department, and it showed Sessions’ five year plan for the agency. Previous plans, like under the Obama administration, listed protecting civil rights as a top priority, but under Sessions, going after undocumented immigrants and pursuing leakers inside the government are closer to the top of that list. Justice still prosecutes individual hate crimes to be sure and Sessions is very loud about those efforts, but the department has, in a lot of ways, really backed off from attacking systematic issues, like reforming problematic police departments and working to combat LGBT discrimination in the workplace.
Al: You started looking into what’s going on with the civil rights division, but senior officials won’t talk. You spoke to former officials, including people who were there after Donald Trump entered the White House. Tell me about that.
Aaron: Well, let’s go back the Sharon McGowan, who we heard from a moment ago. She was a senior attorney in the appellate section, and she prosecuted police brutality cases, and she worked to get the Obama administration to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages. She’s in a same sex marriage herself, with a partner and two kids.
When Trump was elected, she was really worried.
Sharon McGowan: My second daughter was actually born a few months previously. She was born in September of 2016 and I remember, my first instinct after the election, the results were announced, is that my wife and I needed to get our second daughter her passport immediately, because I was concerned that under a Trump Pence administration, the State Department may no longer think that it’s appropriate for a child to have two same sex parents, so there were, literally in that moment, there was a very personal, visceral sense of threat.
Aaron: Sharon says that the threat didn’t stop at her family life. It extended into her work as a civil rights attorney.
Sharon McGowan: For those first few weeks after the election, I really walked around, I think, with a very dark cloud of doom cast over my shoulders. And then, when Jeff Sessions was nominated, I think there was almost a second blow that the folks in the civil rights division experienced because we all knew how serious that decision had been to nominate Jeff Sessions.
Al: So Aaron, what specifically about Jeff Sessions worried her so much?
Aaron: Sessions has a long history of opposing LGBT rights. As a lawmaker, he supported a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage and he voted against expanding the definition of hate crimes to include attacks on people based on their gender or sexual identity.
Al: Obviously, there are concerns about his record on race, right?
Aaron: Those concerns have dogged Sessions throughout his long career in government. They even caused him to lose out on a nomination to become a federal judge back in the 1980’s, so it’s understandable that Sharon was worried.
Sharon McGowan: Knowing that there was such a broad antipathy in his record to civil rights, I knew then in particular, I would be really in the hot seat with respect to this new administration’s agenda, and in particular, Jeff Sessions anti-civil rights agenda.
Al: So, what did Sharon decide to do?
Aaron: Well, she left. She joined Lambda Legal, which is a non-profit that’s challenging Trump over LGBT rights, but the decision … it was really tough on her. Sharon even got a little emotional telling me about the day she told her supervisor she was resigning.
Sharon McGowan: It’s funny that it’s almost a year and a half later and I’m getting choked up, so sorry about that, but that night, it was interesting because I was home and I was watching one of the TV news programs and that night was when acting attorney general Sally Yates informed the president that the Justice Department would not defend the Muslim ban.
Speaker 10: In a dramatic letter to department attorneys, she questioned whether the immigration ban was consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.
Sharon McGowan: I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s my Justice Department. Maybe I jumped ship too soon. There are good people that are left at the Justice Department who won’t just hand over the keys and let it all go to pot,” and then of course, we all came back from commercial break and found out that Sally Yates had been fired.
Speaker 11: Sally Yates, according to the White House, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal …
Sharon McGowan: And I felt in some ways like it was the universe trying to reassure me that I hadn’t jumped ship too soon, that I wasn’t overreacting, that my concerns were well placed.
Al: So it sounds like that Sharon made the right decision for her, but I’m curious, are there people still working in the Justice Department that feel the way she does now?
Aaron: You know, Al, I was wondering that myself, so I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the results of these opinion surveys taken by all justice department employees. There were questions about how they liked their jobs or their perceptions of their bosses, just basic work stuff. I started comparing the results for people in the civil rights division between 2016 under Obama and 2017 under Trump. The difference was striking. So, for the question, my organization’s senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, the percentage of people answering yes dropped from about 70% to just 42%.
For the question, I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders, positive responses experienced almost an identical drop. Again, this all happened within the span of a single year.
Al: Yeah, but come on, administration’s change, and especially if there’s a switch in parties. I can imagine that there’s always a little tension in the transition. What’s different about this situation?
Aaron: Yeah. The White House does change hands from party to party and different parties do have different ideologies. All of that does have a real effect on the Justice Department. I actually spoke about this with a guy named Gerry Hebert. Gerry works at the campaign legal center, but before that, he worked in the civil rights division under five different presidents. He actually started under Richard Nixon, which from how he tells it, seems like a bit of an adventure. Oh boy.
Gerry Hebert: The morale was quite high. We were really, in the civil rights division really rolling along for several months and then within a few months after I started, we had the famous Saturday Night Massacre.
Aaron: If you remember your history, the Saturday Night Massacre was when Nixon basically decapitated the Justice Department. He did it by firing the top leadership as part of an effort to bury the Watergate investigation. He fired the special prosecutor too.
Gerry Hebert: The whole Justice Department was in an uproar …
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Aaron Sankin: … fired the special prosecutor too.
Jerry: The whole justice department was in an uproar, and frankly it took a few years for the justice department to kind of get back on its feet.
Aaron Sankin: Things were pretty crazy under Nixon, but Jerry says there is nothing he’s ever seen that compares to what’s happening under Trump.
Jerry: Sure I felt that some administrations more vigorously wanted to enforce the civil rights laws, but none of the administrations that I mentioned really wanted to undermine the very laws that we were supposed to enforce. With the Trump administration I think that’s what’s happened. You have people who are there who have come in as political appointees, temporarily running the civil rights division, who really don’t believe in the law. So it isn’t that they just aren’t going to enforce it. They are actually going to try to take steps to undermine it and weaken it at every opportunity.
Al Letson: Aaron, can you give me some specifics about what he’s talking about here?
Aaron Sankin: One of Jerry’s big concerns here is about voting. First there’s the way the Trump administration reversed the governments position in a whole bunch of important voting rights cases. There’s also the fact that Trump keeps putting forward these allegations of massive widespread voter fraud. Like just a few weeks ago he repeated these claims that millions of people, including a whole bunch of undocumented immigrants, had voted illegally in 2016.
Trump: In many place, like California, the same person votes many times. You’ve probably heard about that. They always like to say, oh that’s a conspiracy theory. Not a conspiracy theory folks. Millions and millions of people-
Jerry: What’s done that really damages the democracy as an institution in our country is that comments like millions of illegals voting, the false claims of voter fraud, and the rest they really serve to undermine the legitimacy of the government, and our election system.
Aaron Sankin: Just for the record here, there is no evidence at all that there is massive widespread voter fraud happening in America at that scale. None.
Al Letson: So we see what these surveys have to say, that respect and leadership has really gone down, but what’s Jerry and Sharon hearing from their contacts within the agency?
Aaron Sankin: They both say that there’s a lot of fear in there. Sharon says, “Sometimes it sort of feels like people are living in the Cold War.”
Sharon: I recently had coffee with a couple friends, and I described it to someone later as feeling like they were on the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie, and I was on the West Berlin side, and I was calling over the wall to sort of let them know to not give up. That we hadn’t forgotten about them, because there is. There’s this tremendous sense of demoralization, and I think every lawyer in the civil rights division is probably going through that weighing process everyday of do I stay, do I go.
Al Letson: While Sharon did quit, she said “She’s supporting the people who are staying put,” and Jerry’s doing the same thing. Encouraging people to stick around and fight the good fight.
Jerry: I have encouraged people who are in the civil rights division today not to leave, but what I’ve also encouraged them to do is to talk to people about what is going on inside the civil rights division. I mean, many of them are afraid and will not talk to the press. Many of them will not talk to people like me over the phone, because they feel their phones are going to be tapped. But, ultimately I think that they should be doing that. It does take a certain amount of courage to stand up for what you believe in, and if you’re not going to do that then you’re just really taking up space. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because the space you’re taking up could be taken by somebody who would really do bad things.
Aaron Sankin: But you know, with all that said people keep leaving the civil rights division, and still no one has been appointed to run it on a permanent basis. For such an important part of the federal government, we’re really in uncharted territory here.
Al Letson: That’s Reveal’s Arron Sankin. He and Will Carless write the weekly Hate Report on our website. Aaron, thanks for coming in.
Aaron Sankin: Anytime Al.
Al Letson: When we come back, what does it mean and what does it take to respond effectively to hate speech? You’re listening to Reveal from the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX.
From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Imagine you’re in a public place on a sidewalk, or at a shopping center, or in a subway train. A person within ear shot starts shouting at somebody else who doesn’t look like you. The words sound kind of familiar, like a not to distant memory.
Trump: Get him the hell out of here. Will you please? Get him out of here. Throw him out.
Al Letson: The shouter is close enough for you to see now. Echoing those words.
Elizabeth: I was coming home on the seven line, which goes from midtown Manhattan into Queens, and there was a gentleman that was being loud and disruptive, and he was on a rant. A pretty epic rant about how Donald Trump was going to kick all of the dirty immigrants out of the country.
Al Letson: What would you do when you and other people on the subway see and hear this guy? Elizabeth [Kinseck 00:41:33], an actor and musician with a day job in tech is right there. “The tension grows as he goes on and on” she says, and the man seems-
Elizabeth: To search and narrow in his focus on whoever he found on that train car that was different, and it happened to be two women that were sitting across from me, who were Asian.
Al Letson: Elizabeth has a safety pin on her jacket to signal she doesn’t go for racial name calling.
Elizabeth: I heard about this safety pin idea. Which was to visibly wear a statement on your clothing that said that you were a safe person to come to if there was a threat, or a conflict. I thought it was a cool idea, and I happened to have a safety pin floating in my purse, and just kind of threw it on my jeans jacket. I just wanted to visually represent that Trump wasn’t my fault. Which is such a liberal lady thing to say.
Al Letson: On the subway she makes up her mind to do something.
Elizabeth: I kind of looked around to see what other people were reacting to, what they were seeing, and I met eyes with a guy that was down the way who also happened to be wearing a safety pin. I kind of motioned like I was going to stand up, and he stood up too, and we just put ourselves between this guy who was ranting and these two women, and turned our backs to him.
Al Letson: Nobody recorded Elizabeth’s experience on the subway. All over YouTube though people have posted footage of other transit passengers speaking up against slurs and protecting their targets.
Speaker 12: Because he looks Indian and Muslim, is that what it is?
Speaker 13: Yes.
Speaker 12: We’re all in this together. You’re a grown woman, and you defend your brothers and sisters, because that’s what you are. If you are part of this country you’re brothers and sisters with everyone.
Al Letson: The guy who was ranting in Elizabeth’s train car finally left, but all these standoffs don’t end the same way. This happened last May at a light rail station in Portland, Oregon.
Speaker 14: Police say this man verbally attacked a Muslim woman on a train, and that when good Samaritans came forward to help he stabbed them to death.
Al Letson: Standing up to hate can get you killed. Along with Elizabeth, the safety pin wearer, activist Marissa Johnson joined me in the studio to talk about what it means to act like an ally in these times. People disagree about the most effective ways to do that. The safety pin has been criticized as an inadequate empty response to a systemic problem. Marissa and a business partner clapped back at that symbol with what they call the Safety Pin Box.
Each month subscribers pay up to $100 for assignments from people of color about how to resist structural inequality. There’s a whole lot of ally shit that doesn’t behind it, no teeth. Right? But, it seems to me that what was going on on the subway was a little bit different, because Elizabeth was actually putting herself in the line of danger.
Marissa Johnson: There’s this illusion that if you face one even moment of danger that it’s like, let’s give you a badge and a star. You’re, look at all this great things that you did. The reality is our lives are on the line all the time. So if you’re going to enter into this work with us A: it has to be with us. There’s no white saviors. It has to be informed by us, and B: it needs to be strategic so that you actually don’t put us more in harm.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I hear that. I would say, on that train incident, which it seems like a lifetime ago now, it was not a decision that I made with a plan. You’re right about that Marissa. I saw somebody who was in distress, well two women who were distress, who were fighting to not cry in the face of this bully. I got up, I made eye contact, I mouthed to them “Are you okay?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “I’m going to stand here,” and they said “Yes.” I mean, all we did was stand up and act as a barrier, but I think it gave other people courage to not ignore what was going on.
Al Letson: Elizabeth said she would’ve acted whether or not she was wearing a safety pin. At the close of our conversation, almost offhandedly, she mentioned that she doesn’t wear it anymore.
Elizabeth: If I really searched my heart about that, it’s because it got such slap back. Nobody wants to be misunderstood for their intentions, and that connotation with the safety pin, and it just being a flippant display of involvement was not what I wanted to portray.
Al Letson: Marissa wasn’t thrilled with the way the subway incident played out.
Marissa Johnson: You know what Elizabeth described is that more people, as she put it, are doing something and that’s a good thing, and that’s not true.
Al Letson: I wanted to know more about why she said that, because well Elizabeth was trying to help. So Marissa and I talked a second time.
From the last conversation it felt like the only way that someone can be an allyship is to do it strictly the way that you kind of lay out. So can you tell me what’s your philosophy or what’s your thoughts about how allyship should work?
Marissa Johnson: White people have been continually asking us throughout this Black Lives Matter movement, “What can we do? What can we do? I don’t know what to do.” Yet, I don’t know that they’re really ready for the answer. You know, it can’t be a gesture that you don’t think about, that you just throw on. If you are actually committed to yourself, and your children, and our communities living in a different world that’s a lifestyle, and you have to make a lifestyle change. It has to be accountable to the communities that you say that you want to serve.
Al Letson: Marissa bases her business model on the idea of accountability. In the last year she says, “The Safety Pin Box has distributed over $200,000 to black women activists.” Without apology Marissa and her business partner call what they’re doing a form of reparations and a way to monetize white guilt.
Marissa Johnson: We live in a country where everybody is paid for their work, or is supposed to be, but what’s been historically an issue is that black women have been at the forefront of every single black revolutionary movement and all of these black women that you know, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer died destitute. This work is not a game. You’re supposed to do this work that puts your life on the line, that prevents you from getting other work, that has you in scenarios where white supremacists are doxxing and putting your families information online. We just don’t believe that the solution to problems that arose out of slavery is doing another form of slavery.
Al Letson: So let’s just say in an imaginary world, I’m a white person. I see somebody acting really racist towards another person of color, and I feel like I need to do something. Maybe I don’t do anything in my regular life to change anything, but this thing really makes me uncomfortable and I feel like I need to step up and do something. What would you say to that person?
Marissa Johnson: Well I would say that the core goal, I hope, in that is to insure the safety of whoever’s being harmed in the situation. Part of how you’d want to do that is to deescalate the situation. You can go up to them and be like, yo the Seahawks had a horrible game, or did you watch that Super Bowl, or what did you think of this movie. There’s all these different ways that you can try to distract this person that will accomplish the same goal.
Al Letson: It felt like in the previous conversation that you were saying that people should not get involved in those situations unless they understand specifically how to be a good ally.
Marissa Johnson: I think when people say, oh I got to do something, it’s not necessarily driven by their actual capabilities to help deescalate the situation. It’s driven by their discomfort of being faced face to face with this person being belligerent and racist. The thing is about being equipped. Right? I’m always going to hope that before you jump out of a plane that you’ve had some training on how to release your parachute. The safety pin is supposed to signal that you’re going to be an interventionist of some sort. The thing is, if you think that you might ever be in that position ever, take some precautions and think through the process.
Al Letson: To make sure the victim’s safety and wellbeing always matters most, Marissa also hopes would be allys who say they want to take a stand will think about what they’ve been willing to accept up until now.
Marissa Johnson: It’s similar to the reaction that people have with Trump. Right? People thought Trump was kind of funny, and he’s okay, or whatever, but now part of the reason why you see people kind of falling back a little bit is because, now it’s undeniable, it’s in your face. White people are really uncomfortable with that. Even if they’re okay with racism on the day to day. If you’re not already doing work in your life, that’s not something that’s important to you, then you’re okay with a society that maintains white supremacy, you’re okay with a society that creates these people and allows them to flourish. But, what you’re not okay with is being confronted on the subway with having to see it, with having to hear it, with having to be uncomfortable.
Al Letson: Activist Marissa Johnson is the co-founder of the Safety Pin Box. Thanks to her and Elizabeth Kensick for their willingness to talk through this tough subject.
Michael Montgomery, [Kat Shutnick 00:51:13], and Amy Walters produced this weeks episode. Cheryl Devall edited our show. Thanks to Reveal’s Andy Donohue and John [Oleary 00:51:20] for their help this week. Special thanks to ProPublica for running the Documenting Hate Project, and for creating a special animated video for this project. You can see it on either of our Twitter or Facebook accounts.
Our production managers Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo Jay [Breezy 00:51:37], Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando my man Arruda. Christa Scharfenberg is acting CEO, Amy Pyle is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan, our theme music is by [Comerado Lighting 00:51:49]. Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, and The Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal is a co-production of the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.
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