Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 14, 2020

Trying to stop hate before it arrives

Berke’s Council Against Hate uses data, education to battle intolerance

In the wake of the July 16, 2015, terrorist attack in Chattanooga, in which a Muslim extremist opened fire on two military installations, killing five and wounding two, several questions weighed on Mayor Andy Berke’s mind.

He pondered how the community could refrain from engaging in retributive, Islamophobic behavior, how the people of the city could respond constructively and what the local government’s responsibility was in addressing the tragedy, says Kerry Hayes, Berke’s chief of staff.

Searching for answers took Berke around the nation and world to meet with groups focused on the same topics and discuss how cities can respond to hate crimes, hate speech and violent extremism.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of radicalized violence and hate in the U.S. grew louder. Events like the Unite the Right rally in 2017, during which white supremacists and neo-Nazis carried Confederate battle flags, swastikas and tiki torches through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, exposed the emboldened spirit of hate groups, creating troubling situations for local governments and law enforcement agencies working to keep citizens safe.

Then, during his State of the City address in 2018, Berke announced the creation of the Council Against Hate, a communitywide project to counteract the rise of organized hate.

“The city was growing, our economy was healthy and we were in the midst of a generational pivot that was impacting our values,” Hayes says. “Younger people were entering the workforce and expecting both the city and their employers to be welcoming and culturally articulate. But we had learned that the hate that exists in other places could come here.”

Berke asked Alison Lebovitz, the host of “The A List” on WTCI, and Wade Hinton, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Unum, to co-chair the council. In his pitch, the mayor said the council was not a reaction to the 2016 attack but a proactive effort to infiltrate every sector of the community and build ladders of kindness, understanding and respect.

Lebovitz and Hinton agreed to serve on one condition: The council would be an agent of change instead of a political token that sat at a table writing a mission statement.

“We’re the Council Against Hate, but we’re also the council for action,” Lebovitz says. “So, how are we going to affect policy? How are we going to impact community leaders? Because we’re taking on a very large, tentacled octopus, and it’s not a short game.”

Consisting of 18 individuals, the committee launched in 2019, charged with understanding the factors that lead to violent extremism and intolerance in Chattanooga and advising the public and private sectors on the policies it believes will create a more civil, safe and welcoming community.

Berke says only a diverse body would be effective, so he chose Lebovtiz, who is Jewish, and Hinton, an African American, to lead the council. Then he went further by including representatives from other groups, including Samantha Boucher, a transgender woman and an advocate for the local LGBTQ community.

A Chattanooga resident, Boucher has lobbied the city council on behalf of the LGBTQ population and acted as liaison between her community and the local government. She’s currently in Iowa serving as the campaign manager for Kimberly Graham, a Democratic contender for the U.S. Senate.

“Samantha is one of the most impressive human beings I’ve met,” Lebovitz says. “She’s brought to light things that were a part of our own attitudes. No matter how open and inclusive we try to be, or think we are, none of us are without some level of prejudice and discrimination.”

Lebovitz stresses that the inclusive nature of Berke’s invitations was not a political gesture but an effort to put together a group capable of empathy, which she adds is a necessary catalyst for change.

“The council is about engaging voices from all perspectives and backgrounds because the more we hear each others stories, the more empathy we gain and the better we understand the challenges others face,” she explains.

As the leader of a Jewish youth group, Lebovitz has many troubling stories to share, including one about the time her son saw another boy in driving class create a paper mustache reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s, place it on his lip and do the Nazi salute.

Although the incident shocked Lebovitz, her response to such behavior is to try to educate the other person without seeming overly delicate.

“I ask, ‘Do you know what that means and that it offends me?’” she says. “I think back to the episode of ‘Seinfeld’ in which Jerry was unable to say certain things because we’ve become hypersensitive to the narrative associated with them. That was a funny take on the issue, but the reality of it is, how can we be empathetic without looking like the politically correct police?”

Boucher has endured physical violence and rejection due to her transition. In addition to being assaulted at a train station in Atlanta, a doctor at a Chattanooga urgent care clinic refused to treat her when she arrived seeking treatment for a chest cold.

“This was before I changed my name, so even though I was presenting as female, my name and other information was in my medical record,” Boucher says in a phone interview. “When the doctor entered the exam room and saw me, he said I would have to be treated elsewhere.”

Berke also acknowledged the Council Against Hate would need to engage every segment of Chattanooga. To this end, the council formed seven committees, including Public Policy, Research and Data, Students and Youth, Faith and Culture, Businesses and Employers, Educators, and Media. Each committee is responsible for its own programming.

“Effecting change is not as simple as reaching out to the schools, or the corporate world, or the policymakers,” Lebovitz says. “This is like rock soup; everybody is going to bring their sphere to bear, and there are going to be unique challenges in every sector.”

One challenge facing the council involves identifying where hate exists in Chattanooga. Hayes says a neo-Nazi organization called the American Identity Movement has been placing stickers around downtown Chattanooga, but other than that, he has no additional details.

“We don’t know how to answer that question at this point,” Hayes says.

To understand where hate resides in Chattanooga, why it’s there and how it’s expressed, the council has established relationships with a number of national and international entities, two of which include the Southeast Division of the Anti-Defamation League and Hatebase, which is part of the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention.

The council was drawn to the ADL’s hate maps of the U.S., which Lebovitz says are extensive. “If we’re going to tackle this work, we have to understand its foundation,” she explains.

Hayes says the ADL’s statistics have been eye-opening. In addition to data that reveals a rise in anti-Semitism and crimes against immigrants nationwide, the ADL told the council 20% of all white supremacist events in the U.S. in 2018 occurred in Tennessee.

To begin to determine how much hate activity is taking place in Chattanooga, the council is using the Sentinel Project’s Hatebase technology to track and catalog incidents of hate in real time.

Hayes describes Hatebase as an early warning system that can identify situations of concern and empower a community to stop mass violence before it begins.

By visiting the council’s website at connect.chattanooga.gov/councilagainsthate, local residents can submit incidents of hate they either experience or witness. The city then pulls this information from Hatebase and adds it to a database it’s using to monitor local hate activity.

“We’re hoping to better understand hate speech in our community and reduce the likelihood that it will graduate to violence,” Hayes explains.

“We don’t feel like we need to do something by a certain date or something will blow up, but after July 16 and all of the other incidents of hate around the country, we couldn’t just pray it doesn’t happen again,” Lebovitz adds. “We had to take action to make sure we’re doing everything we can.”

The data Hatebase gathers supports research at over 275 universities. The City of Chattanooga is one of the first local governments using Hatebase in the U.S.

Instead of letting the information it gathers sit unused, the city will share it with its partners across Chattanooga, who can then take action within their sphere. This includes local law enforcement.

“We’re seeing a lot of data that suggests incidents of hate go underreported locally and nationally,” Hayes says. “The people at the Anti-Defamation League say the most important thing a community can do is strengthen its relationship with law enforcement so people will report the things that are disturbing to them.”

As a body of action, the council isn’t waiting for the numbers to work their magic. Instead, it’s facilitating conversations about hate with the public now through its social media feed, podcast (The Scanner) and public events.

One such event was a presentation by former white supremacist Christian Picciolini in October. About 100 people attended.

“We’re introducing voices and perspectives that are counteracting hate,” Hayes points out. “Christian offered a playbook for how to disaffiliate yourself with Nazis. If that connected with one kid in Chattanooga who was distraught, confused or uncertain about what he needs to be doing with his or her life, then we did our job.

“You combat hate by confronting people with other messages. Then they make different choices.”

“Neo-Nazi groups do an amazing job of giving a person’s life meaning. If they can do that with a message of hate, then we can do much better with a message of love,” Lebovitz adds.

“We could just as easily be called the Council for Love, Respect and Acceptance. But I also believe in calling it the Council Against Hate because we have to call out hate, intolerance and indifference when we see it.”

Since October, the council has hosted a reading and book signing with Deborah Levine and Marc Brenman, authors of “When Hate Groups March Down Main Street,” and co-sponsored a presentation by the Tennessee Holocaust Commission for Hamilton County high school students.

“We want to delegitimize the hate by saying, ‘This is not who we are. This is not what we believe. These values are not part of our identity,” Hayes says.

While the public has responded positively to the council’s activities, there are pockets of resistance in the community, Lebovitz says.

“Certain groups are couching our work as a left-wing effort to suppress people’s God-given, constitutional right to free speech,” she adds. “But we’re not a liberal front to do anything. We’re not even a political front, even though we’re coming from the mayor’s office. This is about knowing our words are our greatest weapons, and we can use them to uplift people or as tools of destruction.”

Hayes says she welcomes the opposition because it means people are listening.

“We don’t mind a little pushback because we know we’re on the right side of a larger historical conversation that’s good for our city and the country,” he says. “Incidents of hate keep happening around the nation, and that’s not to say Chattanooga is next, but we’re one line of defense against that here.”

Hayes says that although the Council Against Hate is closely tied to Berke, it can continue after the mayor’s second and final term ends in 2021.

Boucher says she hopes the council lives far beyond Berke’s leadership.

“Looking at human nature, I believe we’ll always need a Council Against Hate,” she says. “The best thing we can do as a society is teach as many individuals as possible and hold people accountable when they try to lead us to fascism.”

Berke also hopes the council will persist. In a recent newsletter emailed to recipients, he wrote that recent research indicates that hate and violent extremism is on the rise in cities across America, with new data from the FBI showing that hate crimes against individuals reached a 16-year high in 2018.

“When you look at what’s happening, you can turn to despair, or you can be hopeful,” Berke said when introducing Picciolini in October. “We choose to be hopeful because we understand we can choose the kind of community we want to be. And that act of choosing forges our future.”