Eastern District acting U.S. Attorney pledges support for 'at-risk groups'

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by Linda Laderman
Legal News

As religious institutions in the U.S. experience a significant increase in hate crimes, members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan are working to push back against extremism.

Daniel Lemisch, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, along with assistant U.S. attorneys, Susan DeClerq and Kevin Mulcahy, recently spoke at “Hope Against Hate,” a day-long program at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

The conference, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, featured author and Emory University Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Deborah Lipstadt. In 2016, actress Rachel Weisz portrayed Lipstadt in the movie Denial, a film based on her 2005 book History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving.

Breakout workshops addressing the many different layers of anti-Semitism also were held throughout the day.

Violent anti-Semitic incidents have increased dramatically since 2015, Lemisch told attendees at the session, “Confronting Anti-Semitism: A Local Perspective on Hate Speech and Threats.”

Citing a recent audit by the Anti-Defamation League, Lemisch said, “Anti-Semitic incidents increased nationwide by one third from 2015 to 2016 and are up 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017... Anti-Islamist crimes are up, as well. Mosques have been burned down and an Indian man was murdered in Kansas last February.”

Lemisch attributed the spike in hate crimes to the ability to instantaneously spread hate tinged messages. “Social media has allowed hate groups to connect with one another like they never could before, giving alt right and nationalistic groups an unrestrained ability to communicate with one another,” he said.

Lemisch clarified to the group of primarily non-lawyers why hate speech is protected unless there is an identifiable victim, time or place.

“Who would actually admit they wanted to make a threat, so as prosecutors we almost always look backwards,” Lemisch said. “When we get a threat, we have to determine if the person making the claim meant it as a threat, if there was intent to commit an unlawful act of violence.

Referring to a bomb threat made last March against the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Lemisch said, “It’s comforting that there was an arrest..., but look at how much havoc one person can create.”

In an ongoing program, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is partnering with advocacy groups, visiting religious institutions, and fielding cases of harassment against elementary and high school students.

“Our Civil Rights Unit has received reports relating to school incidents, but they are not routinely or required to be reported to us,” Lemisch said after the conference. “Often school issues are first reported to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights or the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. We would welcome more reports. Schools have a responsibility to make sure kids are safe and not bullied or harassed based on their skin color and national origin.”

Lemisch said his office supports the work of organizations like Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust (ALPACT) and Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity (BRIDGES) since they can provide community members and law enforcement with a forum to talk openly about discrimination and extremist violence.

“Our office is reaching out to affected communities because people should understand how the law works and how government represents them,” he said.

“We provide as much information as we can share without compromising security, but more importantly, we build personal relationships so that local communities know who they can call for help and support and take every opportunity to present at community events, like our participation at the... Hope Against Hate event.”

Lemisch said he has found that the impacted communities are cognizant of the inherent threats facing them.

“In most instances, the communities are well aware of what is driving the rise in religious-related incidents. They are mostly concerned about what is being done to stop the incidents and how law enforcement is working to protect their communities,” Lemisch said. “We want them to know their rights, to enjoy the blessings of this country. Our government has a strong responsibility to protect them.”