Organizations Offer Support in Reaction to Austin Terrorism Fear
By Tonyia Cone
When the first three of an early March series of bombings in Austin killed African-American and Hispanic victims, some city residents were fearful that the acts of terror might have been racially motivated and that their communities were targeted, a perspective not unfamiliar throughout history to Jews.
In February, ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased 57 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase on record. A significant increase in incidents on school and college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row, was the cause for the sharp overall increase.
The FBI’s 2016 hate crime statistics show that 21 percent of single-bias incidents were prompted by religious bias. Of those, 54.2 percent were anti-Jewish.
Law enforcement agencies have not uncovered the Austin terrorist’s motivation, but the public’s initial concern reinvigorated the conversation of hate crime in Central Texas.
A hate crime is an offense like murder, arson or vandalism with an added element of bias. Federal and state of Texas definitions of hate crime differ.
Texas law defines hate crime as motivated by a victim's race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual preference, age or national origin.
The FBI defines hate crime as a criminal offense against a person or property motivated by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.
At the same time, the FBI’s website states, “Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”
In response to the bombings in Austin, Congregation Agudas Achim held Heal Austin in Song, an opportunity for community members to sing niggunim (wordless chants) and promote strength of community.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe explained that Heal Austin in Song was the congregation’s reaction to the uncertainty in town at the time and a chance to offer hope and possibility going forward.
Two of the victims, Anthony House and Draylen Mason, were connected to some CAA members. House was the stepson of one of Blumofe’s friends, and many people knew Mason, who was a musician.
CAA will continue to offer events like Heal Austin in Song, a “healing and gentle presence” and “container for people’s thoughts and fears” at a time when many people are anxious about world events, Blumofe explained.
“This reminds us how synagogues are relevant in times of uncertainty. It’s important to show up for each other,” he said. “I’m proud our synagogue can provide that kind of community.”
In 2010, Austin Anti-Defamation League, Austin City Council members Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, and Randi Shade, the Community Justice Council led by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla and Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg convened the Austin-Travis County Hate Crimes Task Force.
The task force’s mission is to create a forum that fosters open dialogue about hate and discrimination and strengthens the bonds of our community through prevention, response and restoration.
Renee Lafair, Anti-Defamation League regional director, said, “That network is now an integral part of my work every day in fighting hate.”
More than 50 organizations and departments participate in the task force. They get together twice each year to talk about hate crimes and incidents and those committing them so the organizations can educate the public, try to prevent hate crimes and incidents, and help restore the community after hate crimes and incidents happen.
“One of the biggest benefits of this group is we form our network and we become colleagues and collaborators before we need to be so when situations arise, we know who to call, we know who does what, we confer with each other, and we make sure we are on the same page with things so we can go out in the community,” she said.
Lafair explained that hate crimes are under-reported because, wanting to move on and forget what happened, victims are reticent to report hate crimes.
As part of its responsibility to uphold the civil rights of the American people, the FBI works to combat the problem of hate crimes. The lead investigative agency for criminal violations of federal civil rights statutes, the FBI also supports state, local and tribal law enforcement; forwards results of completed investigations to local U.S. Attorneys Offices and the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, which decide whether a federal prosecution is warranted; forms public outreach partnerships; and conducts hundreds of operational seminars, workshops, and training sessions annually for local law enforcement, minority and religious organizations and community groups to promote cooperation and reduce civil rights abuses.
The FBI additionally participates in local hate crime working groups, including the Austin-Travis County Hate Crimes Task Force.
Special Agent Michelle Lee, San Antonio FBI public affairs officer, said, "Hate crimes are not only an attack on the victim, they are meant to threaten and intimidate an entire community.
Because of their wide-ranging impact, investigating hate crimes is a high priority for the FBI.”
She added, “Groups that preach hatred and intolerance can plant the seed of terrorism here in our country.”
The FBI encourages anyone to contact the FBI Austin Resident Agency office at 210-225-6741 to report hate crimes or any violations of federal law.