In the wake of bomb threats made to Jewish organizations across the country, undocumented immigrants fearful of deportation, Muslim-Americans feeling antagonized in the wake of two travel bans and, just recently, a white supremacist's alleged killing of a black man in New York City, a panel designed to help advocates in the nonprofit community confront fear and hate-based attacks tried to stay optimistic. But a couple questions from the audience about whether community groups should organize “multi-ethnic defense squads,” or train minority community members to use firearms for protection, signaled a level of desperation in the room.
“I have always believed that the fastest way to get gun control legislation passed in this country is to mass mobilize the American Muslim community to start getting firearms,” said Hussein Rashid, a lecturer on Islamic and American culture, as part of the panel.
Rashid, who said he favors gun control and would actually advocate for Muslims to just acquire permits without purchasing actual firearms, sketched his nontraditional gun control lobbying strategy to play on some Americans’ xenophobia. “If it will freak people out enough, yeah, let’s do it, if it’s a means to an end,” he said.
That comment generated laughs, but the seriousness of the debate, one of countless community conversations that have occurred since the presidential election, was clear after a spate of hate crimes and attacks have targeted minorities across the country.
The March 21 panel discussion, sponsored by the New York chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council and held at the lower Manhattan offices of Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, examined how discrimination has recently permeated the culture.
“It’s always been present, but it’s just taken an uptick over the last little while, and we want to work as partners to address these issues together,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO of FPWA, in her opening remarks.
In recent months, members of minority communities have encountered hate-based violence and other discriminatory attacks, which many advocates say developed after a fear-laced campaign helped elect Donald Trump.
Frankie Miranda, senior vice president of the Hispanic Federation, said after his partner was deported to Brazil they were a binational same-sex couple until 2013, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling paved the way for Miranda to sponsor his partner’s migration back to the U.S. They were married in 2014, but his temporary green card expired and with a 14-month wait for his case to be reviewed, he said, they feared that any small confusion or bureaucratic mix-up could send his husband back out of the country.
“This is about everybody: about Muslims, about the Jewish community,” he said.
“Fear is affecting all of us. This is not a problem just for a few,” he added.
The speakers – who also included New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and New York City Commission on Human Rights Chairwoman and Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis – reiterated that New York’s values ran counter to those held by individuals seeking to divide Americans and that the unity, hope and multiculturalism of New York could counter hate.
Christine Quinn, the president and CEO of Win, a nonprofit that supports homeless families, made the case that discrimination – based on race and class – extended to homeless adults. She estimated that about 4 percent of those served by Win entered the country illegally and as many as 10 percent more were families where the parents may be undocumented. If those parents are detained or deported, she said, those children could end up in foster care, especially if their relatives were also at risk of deportation.
“We’re feverishly researching, with the help of pro bono lawyers, what do we do when (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) comes?” Quinn said. “Do we have to let them in? It’s a tough legal question.”
Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, said those concerns also echoed through the Asian-American community. She said challenges emerged following a 1996 federal law that cracked down on illegal immigration, and again after 9/11, but “this is nothing like we’ve ever dealt with before.” She said she was harassed just a few days after the November election.
Jewish community centers have been targeted by bomb threats, anti-Semitic graffiti and other incidents. Evan Bernstein, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was listed as a “threat” on a white supremacist website and has received a credible death threat. The incidents have increased to such a frequency, he said, they risked becoming normalized. Previously, swastika graffiti would garner a quick response by the ADL, but now it’s become “such the norm” that they can’t always respond in a timely fashion.
“We’re already in deep trouble as it is, I think, but the challenge is we are at least all speaking up for each other, but we can’t let this become the norm in our society,” he said. “And because the sheer volume has gone up so dramatically, it becomes easier and easier.”
But amid these fears, opportunities were cited.
Yoo said the difficult climate is a chance “to hit reset in a real way” and redefine community as less about what people look like and more about gathering those who share a similar vision. Miranda said the Hispanic Federation is working to amplify the voice of its community and has created a new unit to rapidly respond to hate crimes on social media and elsewhere.
Quinn said that offering personal stories and harnessing positivity and support on social media can be used to counter hate and warned that “haters and violent people” feeling empowered by rhetoric from the Trump administration want to “separate us, divide us and only make us care about our own narrow self-interest.”
She added, “They have no idea how to deal with united Americans, united because of their differences, not in spite of them.”