In a post a few months ago on his blog Cat Dirt Sez, San Diego defense attorney/music promoter Scott Pactor wrote: “If a hypothetical journalist asked me this question: ‘If you were looking to start a new blog, what subject matter would you pick and why?' My answer would be ‘Illegal Immigration.'”
To illustrate his point, Pactor directed readers to a story on SignOnSanDiego.com, the website of the San Diego Union-Tribune, about a Fallbrook Catholic church that had become a hangout for North County day laborers—and a target for anti-illegal-immigrant activist group The Minutemen. At 11:30 a.m., when Pactor's post went up, the SignonSanDiego.com story had attracted 81 comments, which ultimately grew to 203—or, at least 203 published comments. In reading through the comments, it's obvious that some inappropriate remarks had been pulled by the website's monitors but were up long enough to prompt a response from other readers. According to SignOnSanDiego.com's policy, comments that include “threats, ethnic slurs, foul language or thinly disguised foul language” will be axed.
Chris Jennewein, SignOnSanDiego's vice president for Internet operations, said the website attracts roughly 1,500 reader comments a day. And whether or not you agree with those comments, “it's a great way to find out what the community is really thinking,” he said. “Sometimes there are abusive comments—at least until we delete them—but I think that's the price we have to pay in order to have free expression.”
But some people think the sort of free expression one finds in reader forums is not only unproductive—it's also stirring up aggression.
“Anti-immigrant [sentiment] has been the dominant thing for the last few years across the country—the single most repeated theme is opposition to immigration, and some of it very virulent.... I think it's quite shocking to find out what relatively normal people really think,” said Mark Potok, who monitors hate groups and anti-immigrant “nativist” groups—as they're called—for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Enrique Morones, who heads the immigrant-rights group Border Angels, said anti-immigrant sentiment has “never been as bad as it is right now.” Morones can handle the hostile e-mails and phone calls he gets regularly—some of which he shared with CityBeat—but recently his elderly parents became a target (he asked that the details not be disclosed).
Lori Saldaña, a state Assemblymember whose district includes much of the city of San Diego, has been meeting with clergy members and other human-rights organizers at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Bankers Hill to talk about how to counter locally the increasingly harsh rhetoric sparked by national debates over immigration reform—the kind of comments she reads on websites or hears on local radio shows, especially.
“It is literally dangerous for our community to have these people's comments and hate speech broadcast on Roger Hedgecock [KOGO], on Rick Roberts [KFMB], on the Union-Tribune, on the North County Times websites, and it's created a more dangerous community for all of us,” she said. “We can't just privately talk about how terrible it is.”What set Saldaña off are the comments—the majority of them anonymous—that followed an online Union-Tribune story about a woman who had died in the October Harris fire while trying to get across the border.
“The moderator stepped in and said, ‘We're going to shut down this discussion board—we're talking about a human being who died and left four children'—and then it got worse. Then those people started attacking the moderator. “And this is what happens with hate speech,” Saldaña added. “People who step in and try to say, ‘Let's be reasonable here' or ‘Let's at least be civil,' then they get attacked: ‘Don't tell me what to say.' So it's just gotten to the point where we need a response. It's like somebody telling a joke in a room, a sexist or racist joke.”
Americans hold fast to their right to free speech—and, compared to other democratized first-world countries, we have wide latitude in that arena. In England, for example, it's a crime use “threatening, abusive or insulting words” or display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.”
In the U.S., we're limited by the constitutional doctrine of “fighting words.” You can say what you want about a person or group of people until those words incite action. As Deputy District Attorney Oscar Garcia—who heads the DA's hate-crimes unit—explained:
“Say, for example, someone is protesting out in front of a public building and saying death to a particular group, but then they see someone of that group and direct the persons participating in the protest to go get that person, go hit him, go kill him—then that definitely would cross the line of directed action against an individual or a group.”
On Monday afternoon, a story about a drug-smuggling tunnel found in Tecate prompted this comment from someone named “DrDan”: “Border Patrol should have booby trapped it to kill some of those illegals. It should be legal to shoot illegals.”
Within minutes, another commenter agreed: “The tunnel should be converted into a septic tank so we cn [sic] send the #&^% back to where it came form [sic] and belongs. You're right Dr. Dan.”
Again, there's nothing illegal about publicly stating that members of a group of people should be shot. For it to be a crime, the potential for action must accompany the words.
“You can make a statement in the open public that we should shoot everyone who comes across the border, because you have the right to say that even though we don't agree with it,” said San Diego Police Department Capt. Boyd Long. “Now, if you stood at the border and you said, ‘I'm going to shoot everyone who comes across the border' and you had a gun in your hand, you just committed a crime because you have the inherent ability to commit that crime.”Two weeks ago, the FBI released its annual look at hate crimes in the U.S., a report that was preceded by the California Attorney General's annual hate-crime report, released in July. Both reports showed an increase in hate crimes motivated by a person's ethnicity or national origin—the category that includes Latinos. In California, reported hate crimes in the ethnicity/nationality category went from an average of 187 a year between 2001 and 2005 to 218 reported incidents in 2006. Deputy DA Garcia said the numbers could be higher.
“I think that most experts will agree that these are underreported statistics,” he said. And, if the victim is in the country illegally, there's a greater likelihood that the person won't contact law enforcement to report a crime. African-Americans remain the most-targeted group when it comes to hate crimes (and, for that matter, hate speech—CBS News, for instance, made a decision earlier this year to stop allowing readers to comment on online stories about Barack Obama due to the “volume and persistence” of racial slurs), but, as Saldaña pointed out, as election season approaches, immigration will be the issue that rallies voters in the same way same-sex marriage ballot initiatives got people to the polls in 2004. A report released earlier this year by the Anti-Defamation League looked at the “mainstreaming” of the type of anti-immigrant rhetoric and propaganda that had previously been the domain of hardcore anti-immigrant, pro-white organizations. The ADL found that as the issue gets more attention, the conversation gets politically messier.
“Everyone has a right to free speech,” Saldaña said, “but... this is an organized campaign of hate—in the same way that at other times in our country's history there have been organized campaigns of hate with the intent of vilifying, dehumanizing, accusing people of committing crimes, molesting children.”
While hate-crime perpetrators remain, for the most part, members of extremist groups, Garcia said he's seen people who have no criminal record and no affiliation with any group commit what are defined as hate crimes.
“They may feel, Hey, there's talk about immigrants being responsible for all the healthcare costs and they're draining our economy—and the more people start saying it, they see it on the talk shows, then they may start feeling they have a license and some support to go out and commit violence, that the community really doesn't care what happens to these victims… that they're not real people, that they're lesser than humans.” Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.