Grappling with growing hate speech across York, state and country

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch
A panel hosted by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission on Thursday, Dec. 20 discussed the growing number of hate crimes across York County, the state and the nation. (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

The line between free speech and hate is becoming more blurred every day, according to a panelist at a Thursday town hall meeting in West Manchester Township. 

"People are getting more confident in articulating hate," said Hank Butler, a member of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition who spoke at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission-sponsored meeting Dec. 20.

It's an issue facing law enforcement and elected officials across York County, as well as the rest of the state and nation, Butler and other panelists said.

The township was chosen after an August incident in which Ku Klux Klan flyers were left on cars outside the Regal Cinemas at the West Manchester Town Center in August. 

It was the second town hall in a series of three that the Human Relations Commission is hosting to discuss social justice. 

The commission took the opportunity to widen the scope of Thursday's conversation after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life, or L'Simcha, synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

As with the anonymous flyers, the anonymity of social media only proliferates the age-old problems associated with white supremacy, according to Butler. 

"If you're antisemitic, look at me in the face. Look at me in the eye and tell me why, go ahead. And then you respond, but don't hide," he said. "And that's where we're heading. People are hiding and saying whatever they want, and it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger." 

Butler noted that Robert Bowers, the suspect charged with killing 11 people at Tree of Life, had rants "so antisemitic" that Facebook and Twitter, so-called "free speech beacons," kicked him off their platforms. 

Yet nobody was notified, Butler said. 

"It's getting worse and worse, and we have to figure out how to handle this. Not only at a school level, with education, but as adults as well," he said. 

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Confronting hate: The issue lies in confronting acts of hatred and keeping communities safe without merely bringing attention to the person or group spreading the hate, Butler said. 

"They want me to come out, they want people to get angry," he said. 

It's a similar battle the West Manchester Township Police faced when the KKK flyer circulated, said Police Chief John Snyder. 

Snyder said he was first notified of the incident not from a resident complaint but from the news media.

When he heard, he was shocked, the chief said. 

A flyer found on vehicles outside the West Manchester Town Center on Saturday, Aug. 11 targeted viewers of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman with hateful speech about the Jewish race and other minorities.

"I think sometimes as police chiefs we think, 'Oh, that's not us,' or, 'We don't have that issue,'" Snyder said. "But we do have that issue."

After publicly calling the flyer what he still believes it is — "garbage" — Snyder said he received personal threats.

Those threats weren't the calls that resonated with him, though. It was one from a black resident who told him he wouldn't visit the movie theater anymore, Snyder said. 

The resident was scared for his safety and the safety of his family, he said.

"As a police chief I thought to myself I failed," Snyder said. "I failed this person. I failed to protect them, and I was angry."

Despite Snyder's strong feelings, the department's hands are still tied when certain hateful actions are protected under the First Amendment, he said. 

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Distinguishing a hate crime: Carl Summerson, a hearing examiner for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, tried to explain when free speech turns to a hate crime.

For example, racist flyers left all over a neighborhood could be protected under free speech, he said. Flyers distributed only to black residents would be unlawful, he said. 

Another example Summerson described is people marching down a street with signs. Marching would be protected under freedom of speech, he said.

However, the second a marcher turns to someone "face to face" and starts calling names, that steps over the line, he said. 

"I know it's hard, when you sit and read it. That stuff is vile," Summerson said. "But you cross this line of where's free speech and where isn't it. It's a tough one." 

The power of privilege: While the governor and state Legislature can take actions that aim to better protect victims of hate crimes, part of the onus is on residents to make cultural shifts and speak up. 

John Eyster, a member of the York County Advisory Council to the state Human Relations Commission, said that people — especially those in positions of privilege — need to call out racist language as they hear it. 

Eyster read off a list of recent race-related hate crimes, including the flyers in West Manchester and the murder of Chad Merrill. 

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Merrill, 25, was shot outside a bar in Hellman Township after defending a black man against racial slurs in July, according to authorities. 

"I could go on and on. There's crimes against Muslim, Latinos, crimes against women, children. What's the point? It's better for who?" Eyster said. "Folks, there is more outrage about peaceful protests in the NFL than there is about anything that I just said. Let that sink in." 

At work, Eyster said a co-worker recently told him there needs to be an "evolution, not a revolution," adding that "we can't jam it down people's throats." 

An evolution is slow change; a revolution would be complete change, Eyster said. 

"I would contend we need complete change, and we need it quickly," he said. 

As Eyster challenged the public to question comments their friends, family and co-workers make, Snyder said he's learned he and his officers need to lean in to the uncomfortable conversations surrounding race and hate in order to make an impact. 

It's easy for those in a position of power to say, "Let's evolve," Eyster said. 

"But when you're not in that position, you need change," he said. "I sit in a position of power, I sit in a position of privilege, and I want change and I want it now, because it's not right."