61-year-old Milwaukee resident Clifton Blackwell is a white man allegedly consumed with hatred toward foreign nationals. He kept a supply of muriatic acid, Parkerizing cleaner, multiple bottles of Kleen-Out sulfuric acid and two bottles of Kleen-Out drain opener in his residence. He apparently had been contemplating for sometime about dousing a foreign national with a mixture of the acids given the first opportunity.
That opportunity presented itself in the early evening hours of Friday, November 1, 2019, when Blackwell saw a 32-year-old Peruvian native named Mahud Villalaz parked his vehicle in front of a restaurant close to a nearby bus stop where Blackwell was waiting either for a city bus or for someone to attack, since he had a bottle of acid mixture with him. Blackwell approached Villalaz, telling the American citizen that he was parked illegally before launching into a hostile anti-immigrant tirade that culminated with Blackwell throwing the acid in Villalaz face causing severe second degree burns.
Milwaukee prosecutors recently charged Blackwell with one count of first-degree reckless injury and added two sentencing enhancers: commission of a hate crime and use of a dangerous weapon. The reckless injury charge carries a maximum penalty of 25 years and the two enhancers could add up to ten years to any reckless injury sentence. Conceivably, if convicted, Blackwell could spend the rest of his life in prison for actions driven by hate.
Hate Crime on the Rise
A 2017 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that there are more than 900 hate groups in the United States today and that online support for the groups between 2015 and 2016 rose by 900 percent.
The FBI reported there were 7,175 hates crimes committed in the U.S. in 2017—a 17 percent increase over 2017 and a new report from The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, headquartered at California State University in San Bernardino, found that hate crimes rose by 9 percent in 2018 in the nation’s 30 major cities.
Hate crimes are definitely on the rise.
Trump’s Rhetoric Contributes to Increasing Hate Crimes
Earlier this year the Brookings Institution found that President Donald Trump’s “racist rhetoric,” both during his campaign and during his three years in office, has contributed significantly to the increasing levels of racial/ethnic hatred in this country and the horrific crimes it spawns. Brookings said this assertion is supported by FBI data showing that the greatest increase in hate crimes since Trump launched his 2016 presidential campaign has occurred in counties the president carried by his largest margins.
This hatred was recently evidenced by attacks on the Emmett Till memorials in Mississippi—memorials to remember the brutal hate-driven lynching in 1955 of the 14-year-old Chicago African-American boy in the Mississippi Delta. The youth’s only offense was that he violated a Jim Crow-era social law by allegedly speaking out of turn to a white woman.
It is no coincidence, we believe, that the president’s fondness for creating and perpetuating racial divisions in this country is precisely why there has been a significant reduction of hate crime prosecutions by the U.S. Justice Department during Trump’s tenure in office—reductions that actually began in 2010 under the Obama administration but which has dramatically increased under Trump.
Trump Official Indifference De-prioritized Far-Right Violence
Despite having broad legal authority to prosecute such crimes, the Trump Justice Department, according to the Brennan Center, “ … chooses to deprioritize far-right violence as a matter of policy and practice, which we examine in our new report, ‘Fighting Far-Right Violence and Hate Crimes: Resetting Federal Law Enforcement Priorities.’ This is a follow-up to our first report on this topic, ‘Wrong Priorities on Fighting Terrorism,’ which documented the dozens of federal laws the Justice Department has available to prosecute far-right violence.
“The Justice Department’s policies — and its official indifference — regarding far-right violence undermine our nation’s security by discounting the safety concerns of victimized American communities. The federal government’s failure to ensure equal protection of the law erodes community resilience and social cohesion. While a full and complete assessment of the true nature, scope, and impact of far-right violence is necessary to develop sound strategies to address it, as our first report argued, this does not mean policy makers must wait passively until this data is fully collected. Our new report argues for exploring new approaches to the problem of far-right violence, not only to address the present policy failures but to determine whether our traditional legislative approach to hate crimes — increasing criminal penalties — is effective in reducing the harms these crimes inflict.”
ProPublica reported earlier this year that “just 100 hate crimes were prosecuted as federal crimes from January 2010 to July 2018.”
Hate crimes not only do horrific harm to the individual victim of them, like the facial disfigurement of Mahud Villalaz, but they eat away at the community fabric of our society in ways that are not easily measurable. The President, and his Justice Department, needs to take the lead in prosecuting this real form of domestic terrorism to not only maintain but also enhance the safety all people should feel among diverse racial and ethnic groups.