In late November, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report called “Ten Days.” The document noted there were more than 900 reports of harassment or intimidation in the 10 days following Donald Trump’s election as the next U.S. president, a situation that the Law Center considered “a national outbreak of hate.” In Colorado, people have taken to Facebook and other social media outlets to bring attention to local instances of vandalism and bullying. A transgender woman in Capitol Hill woke up one morning to find her car covered in swastikas and derogatory terms. An African-American woman said her daughter heard a student boast, “now that Trump is president, I am going to shoot you and all the blacks I can find.” Learning about these incidents is painful and disheartening.
On a cold November evening, the South Asian Bar Association hosted a presentation titled “Beyond the Safety Pin: How To Be An Active Ally” with speakers from nonprofit and legal organizations. The event drew a large crowd of concerned and anxious lawyers. It was clear there was a prevalent sentiment that lawyers could do something to discredit or prevent this hate speech. However, there was some disagreement as to the best approach.
Acting U.S. Attorney for Colorado Robert Troyer had some consoling observations to allay anxiety about the direction of the new administration. Troyer explained that all 93 U.S. attorneys work autonomously, giving them considerable latitude when enforcing laws in their states. Therefore, a change in president or attorney general will have little effect on how each individual U.S. attorney chooses to enforce the law. Troyer promised to enforce all laws protecting civil liberties and affirmed he would not be persuaded to pursue a case he considered to be illegal or discriminatory, even if there was external pressure. As he sees it, the Rule of Law will always safeguard the ideals we hold immutable.
Another speaker, Tim Brauhn, an interfaith community leader and the communications manager for the Islamic Network Group, gave a humorous and insightful presentation on how to defuse tense situations. His first piece of advice: It never helps to call someone a bad person. In essence, you will not convince a white supremacist to stop being a white supremacist with New York Times articles and public shaming on Facebook. Brauhn says a better way to handle hateful situations is to change the conversation. For example, Brauhn recently visited a friend in Chicago. While he was at a grocery store, a drunk man started verbally harassing a woman. Brauhn quickly interrupted to ask the man whether he might be able to give directions to the baseball field. Clearly caught off guard, the man stopped yelling and started pointing directions. (Brauhn added that they were wrong.) While this might be not an intuitive response to such a situation, Brauhn says it works.
Finally, Suneeta Hazra, the chief of the Criminal Division of the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office, offered some legal advice for dealing with confrontations. First, she encouraged everyone to report to local law enforcement any actions that might be considered a hate crime. If law enforcement is not helpful, inform the FBI. Additionally, always keep all evidence; your determination of what might be relevant might differ from the FBI’s. And it never hurts to report, as some acts that might not necessarily be considered hate crimes could potentially amount to criminal activity under a different federal statute.
Local bar associations will continue to help as much as possible. But, increasingly, it appears we may be entering a presidency requiring the judicial branch to (begrudgingly) take a larger role in political battles. Since Trump’s election seems to be the catalyst for a surge in hate crimes, the courts may take on a role as more of a moral arbitrator. When courts condemn these actions, it will hopefully send a message that bigoted and racist behavior is not to be tolerated. And it would be heartening to see more news coverage of small acts of kindness as opposed to reports of hateful conduct. D
Jill Mullen works in the legislature as the Civic Engagement Director for the Colorado Senate Democrats. She earned her J.D. from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and her B.A. from New York University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.