America Divided: Hate group numbers reveal only part of the story

America Divided: Hate group numbers reveal only part of the story.

In August, Charlottesville, Virginia, became center stage for anger and division in the United States.

White Supremacists led a torch-lit protest at the University of Virginia, followed by a rally the next day at Emancipation Park. Counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed when a car driven by James Fields plowed into the crowd, also injuring 19 others. Then, two state police troopers, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, died in a helicopter crash while responding to the events.

In the aftermath, Newschannel 3 asked if hate groups from West Michigan were involved and could something like that happen here. What we learned hit close to home.

"There were people who said they were part of the Michigan Militia and Nazis from Michigan," said Joellen Vinyard, a history professor at Eastern Michigan University and author of "Right in Michigan's Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia."

"It's not that Michigan is just a place filled with hate," she said, "but a place with people who are actively concerned and active participants in trying to determine what their fate might be."

Vinyard has studied hate groups and their histories for years, particularly in Michigan. She said most members of such groups are trying to get a political point across.

"There are people who hover on the fringe or who adopt their uniforms or their symbols or whatever," Vinyard said in reference to the Charlottesville incidents. "You have, really, thugs, who enjoy beating up people and they don't have much of a political agenda that they haven't just seized on."

To learn more about the hate groups in West Michigan, we spoke to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Department staff use data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate in the country. The center maintains an interactive map on its website and lists 28 hate groups in Michigan, with four being in West Michigan. The organization reports that more than 900 operate across the United States.

And, reacting to the violence in Charlottesville, the center created and distributed, sharing on YouTube, a police training video on ways to respond to protests with the potential to get out of hand.

Mark Bishop, the strategic partnership coordinator for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said the numbers tell only part of the story.

"They are actually in fact organizations, so they often have bylaws, charters, boards of directors or elected officials," Bishops said. "The numbers don't exactly tell the full story of how hate and bias can really traumatize a whole community."

The department operates the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes and will accept online complaints about hate crimes.

Bishop said the number of hate crimes recorded does not always reflect the true number of victims. For instance, if hate speech is spray painted onto a school, that's listed as one victim--the school. The total population of students, faculty and others in the community impacted is not included.

Michigan Incident Crime Reporting statistics indicate that hate crimes went up nearly 20 percent in the past year. The 2016 report, compiled by the Michigan State Police, provides details on biases involved in hate crimes across the state.

Another trend according to Bishop is that within the past five years, hate groups have taken their messages into cyberspace. This is changing their ability to reach new members and also does not require groups to physically assemble to have a presence or impact.

"We used to worry and think about could that happen here," Bishop said. "In today's technology driven, social media sort of world, everything is local now. Are you running one account or 40 accounts? Or, 40,000 accounts? You're able to--by electronic means--amplify a message. They had to literally come to the meeting to be engaged, to hear the message. That's not required anymore."

Both Bishop and Vinyard believe tensions will calm over time, but agree that social media has changed the look of hate groups. Instead of needing to wear a mask or bare a tattoo such as a swastika symbolizing their beliefs, they can blend in with the crowd and shout their message online.

"This is a danger we haven't really come to grips with," Vinyard said. "How do we balance freedom of speech and of the press with these kind of messages that come out. People need to learn to talk to other people who aren't so much like them, read things that aren't necessarily their opinions, and not be so fearful. We're so fearful now."

Follow Jason Puhr on Twitter @JasonWWMT and on Facebook @JasonPuhrWWMT.

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