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SPLC Has Seen Rise In Hate Crime, Domestic Terrorism Attacks


A stabbing attack on a train in Portland, Ore., has left two people dead. The attacker was shouting what police have described as religious hate speech directed toward two Muslim women. Three men tried to intervene and were stabbed by the attacker, and two of those bystanders died. Now, this comes a week after another stabbing death in Maryland where a white college student stabbed and killed a black college student, Richard Collins III, whose funeral was yesterday. That incident is being investigated by the FBI as a possible hate crime.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. That's a group that tracks extremist groups, files lawsuits and works with communities to advance civil rights. We spoke with her earlier today from her home in Alabama, and I started by asking her how her group characterizes the attack in Portland.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Well, we're not entirely clear at this point what all was up with him, but it's clear from his social media postings that he had gone on anti-Muslim rants. He was a supporter of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. He posted things that were pro Hitler and Nazis, anti-Semitism. But there was a lot of other material there as well which kind of clouds the picture.

The way that we're thinking about this is this shows once again even if there are extenuating issues like mental health issues as in the case of Dylann Roof, the power of white supremacist thinking and how it can lead people, especially the fragile-minded to incredible acts of violence.

MARTIN: Do you have any evidence to suggest that this attack and what happened last week in Maryland are part of a pattern or perhaps not, perhaps a - just a terrible coincidence?

BEIRICH: Well, we have seen since the latter parts of the Obama administration an incredible rise in the frequency of attacks like this, hate crime attacks and domestic terrorism attacks. And the targets of those hate crimes have tended to be those populations demonized by the Trump campaign and now Trump administration.

And, you know, we tracked almost 900 hate and bias incidents between the election and 10 days later. Those are numbers that are quite extraordinary for such a short period of time.

MARTIN: One of the reasons that we called you is that you do community training. In Portland, the people who were killed were bystanders who tried to intervene. And I have to ask you what should people do if they see people being vilified in a manner that offends the conscience?

BEIRICH: Sure. Well, I mean, a lot of organizations talk about the fact that if you speak up, you can diffuse the situation. But there is always the caveat that you have to be very, very careful about the possibility of violence. And that could be very unclear. What these two men did was very courageous, and it's horrific that they paid for it. So, you know, our inclination at the Southern Poverty Law Center usually is if you have any concerns that something could go sideways or be problematic or violent, leave it to law enforcement.

But it's very hard to read that, right? You might not know ahead of time, and so it's very hard to give advice on this front. You know, the larger issue really is how is law enforcement going to deal with these folks? But, you know, oftentimes people feel guilty because if they don't say something, you know, this person is having to deal with a diatribe or a terrible situation. But, you know, folks when they get on these racist rants, there can be incredible violence involved. So it's not easy to sort out exactly what it is that you should be doing.

MARTIN: That's Heidi Beirich. She's the Intelligence Project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. We reached her in Alabama. Heidi Beirich, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BEIRICH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.