Violent hate crimes put residents on edge

There’s little data on whether incidents are increasing

IN WINTHROP last month, a man described by District Attorney Rachael Rollins as a white supremacist with “hate in his heart” gunned down a retired state trooper and a retired Air Force veteran, both of whom were Black.

Earlier this month in Brighton, a rabbi was stabbed multiple times outside a Jewish day school in another apparent hate crime.

The two violent incidents raised community awareness of hate crimes and put state residents on edge. “The unpredictability of it, with both [suspects] not on anyone’s radar, it creates a sense of vulnerability amongst people in the community,” said Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office.

The crimes also raise the question of whether Massachusetts is seeing another spike in hate incidents. While anecdotally, the answer is yes, there is no way to know for sure, since there is little current public data.

Attorney General Maura Healey has a complaint hotline to report bias-motivated threats, harassment, and violence. But those calls include out-of-state callers and incidents unrelated to hate crimes, and do not provide an accurate representation of actual incidents. While Healey’s office prosecutes civil rights violations – like race-based housing discrimination – hate crimes are generally left to district attorneys and the US Attorney’s office.

The US Attorney’s office referred questions on the prevalence of hate incidents to the FBI’s Boston office. An FBI spokesperson said its most recent public data is from 2019, when the FBI identified 375 hate crimes in Massachusetts, mainly intimidation and vandalism. Similarly, the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security releases data in December from the prior year, so it last published numbers for 2019, when the state identified 376 hate crimes.

The ADL has the most updated tracking map of hate incidents. The ADL tracks white supremacist events, white supremacist propaganda distribution, and a broad range of anti-Semitic incidents, in addition to hate crimes like actual attacks.

The organization’s map identified 63 incidents in the first six months of 2021, including the Winthrop murder, 11 anti-Semitic incidents, four white supremacist events (like rallies), and 48 incidents of white supremacist propaganda. (The Brighton stabbing occurred in July so is not yet listed.)

That appears to be a decrease from 2020, when there were an astonishing 355 hate incidents (of which 276 were white supremacist propaganda and 73 were anti-Semitic incidents). The 2020 numbers represented a record level of hate, up from 258 incidents in 2019 and less than 200 each of the prior three years. But, according to the ADL, the 2021 numbers are still preliminary and will likely increase as more incidents are identified.

Trestan said he has seen a big spike in the last eight or nine weeks in anti-Semitic incidents being reported to the ADL. He is worried about the violence in Winthrop, Brighton, and the epidemic of harassment against Asian-Americans over the last year. “There’s a lot on social media, and there are clearly people who are not just talking about hatred of various groups but they’re actually taking action,” Trestan said.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The last time there was a sustained focus on hate crimes in Massachusetts was in 2017, after former President Donald Trump took office and there was a surge in bias-related incidents nationally. Gov. Charlie Baker at the time reestablished a task force on hate crimes to advise his office on preventing and responding to hate crimes.

Trestan said he sees the current spike as a continuation of that. “We haven’t seen a marked decrease over the last few years,” Trestan said. “In some ways, we reached a new plateau.”