In an ongoing effort to prevent hate-related crimes like the 2012 Sikh temple shooting, a Wisconsin civil rights committee has heard testimony from experts and law enforcement officials.
The Wisconsin State Advisory Committee, a state board that reports to the federal Commission on Civil Rights, gathered comments and testimony in Madison for a report to be presented to the White House and Congress sometime next year.
The committee first met with Sikh Temple of Wisconsin leaders a few weeks after a gunman walked into the Oak Creek temple on Aug. 5, 2012, and opened fire. Wade Michael Page killed six worshippers and wounded six others, including a police officer, before killing himself. Although FBI investigators never discovered Page’s motive, he had strong ties to the white supremacist movement.
Those invited to speak Thursday included professors and community leaders. Several speakers previewed their testimony for The Associated Press.
Rick Esenberg, the founder of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, urged authorities to avoid haste before labeling a violent crime a hate crime. Overaggressive policing could lead to people being targeted for speech that should be protected, he said.
“I don’t want to see us cross the line into targeting people based on their political views, or enacting legal measures that restrict freedom of speech,” he said.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said his group had counted 600 hate groups in 2000. Last year the number had swelled to 1,000.
Potok said the increase coincided with President Barack Obama being elected in 2008, with Potok speculating the country was experiencing a backlash over societal changes – from the economic downtown to shifts in attitudes about gay marriage.
“What we can say from that is, this too shall pass,” Potok said, citing some citizens’ reactions to the civil rights movements and waves of immigration during the Industrial Revolution.
Elana Kahn-Oren, a director with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said she has seen an anecdotal rise in anti-Semitism in Wisconsin. She noted that six anti-Semitic signs appeared in Algoma in late July.
She suggested the problem was related to the growing polarization of the state, in which discussions about politics and other contentious issues had taken on an increasingly uncivil tone.
Kahn-Oren said one way to improve tolerance was for people to make a special effort to be around those different from themselves, perhaps by buying groceries in different neighborhoods or spending time with people of different religions or sexual orientations.
“We’re changed by people who are different than us. We see they matter,” she said. “You’re less likely to hate when you learn to see the humanity of someone different than you.”