A rash of hate attacks using hangman’s nooses, swastika etchings and other hateful symbols has driven one local government to form a task force and federal authorities to launch their own investigations into what's behind the acts.
In three different towns in Long Island, N.Y., this week, a noose was found dangling from a door hinge at a mall, another on a public works garage fence and two more on a highway department garage. Last month, a noose was strung up in a Nassau County Police Department locker room.
County officials announced Thursday that they were mobilizing a hate crimes commission to investigate the worrying trend in their community.
Also this week, officials at a public school in New York City found 22 swastikas scrawled in green chalk on a number of walls and doors, with the words “Hitler is back” written next to one of them.
Reports of noose and swastika incidents taunting blacks and Jews have emerged with increasing frequency since the summer in New York, Maryland, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, among other states.
The Justice Department says it will prosecute the incidents when federal law applies.
“The Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in cooperation with state and local authorities, are actively investigating these incidents,” acting U.S. Attorney General Peter Keisler said in a statement, referring primarily to the noose cases.
“Many of these cowardly actions may also violate federal and state civil rights and hate crime laws," said the attorney general. "Where the facts and the law warrant, these investigations will culminate in prosecution."
Nooses are reminders of the widespread lynchings of blacks in the Old South. Swastikas are the symbol of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party, responsible for killing millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
On Long Island, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi has decided to form a task force on bias crimes to investigate the attacks there.
The county's legislator, counsel, police officers and members of the Human Rights Commission, Youth Board and Office of Minority Affairs will all sit on the committee.
In a letter asking his police commissioner and legislator to head up the task force, Suozzi cited not only the nooses but also instances where swastika-filled papers were sent to homes, the symbol was painted on a synagogue and an Iranian woman and a gay woman were physically attacked in two separate incidents.
"All of us have a stake in stopping these hate crimes," Suozzi wrote. "These hate crimes damage the fabric of the tapestry of tolerance that we have established throughout our many diverse Nassau County communities."
Nassau has a population of 1.3 million, about 65 percent of which is white, 10 percent is African American, 15-20 percent is Hispanic and 5 percent is Asian.
"There have been a lot of media reports about bias-types of crimes. We want to see, is it the media reporting them more, or is there a pattern going on?" Suozzi said in an interview. "I want to look at it objectively and get as much data as possible. ... We're going to hold people accountable and punish them."
He expects an initial report from the task force within 30 days. Suozzi said he didn't know yet whether the task force will work with the federal authorities.
National hate crime statistics aren’t out yet for this year, but anecdotal evidence suggests that acts targeting Jews have increased in metropolitan New York, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitism.
“The rash of anti-Semitic incidents in the New York City area is greater than the comparable figures for last year,” said ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum. “There’s always a spike during the high holy days, but now we’re a month-and-a-half away from that. We know we did not see this last year.”
Shinbaum said the trend extends beyond, to other parts of the country as well.
The most recent ADL data is from 2006, which actually showed a 12 percent decline nationally in bias incidents against Jews. It was the second consecutive year that there was a dip, after a sharp increase in 2004 — when 1,821 incidents were reported, the highest level in nine years.
Anti-Semitic acts hit their peak in 1994, when the number shot up to more than 2,000 — the most in 22 years.
Noose incidents also appear to be on the rise, particularly in the aftermath of the Jena 6 case in Louisiana — in which six black high school students in Jena were arrested and prosecuted for beating a white student unconscious, a few months after three white students were suspended but not arrested for hanging nooses in a tree on school grounds. The treatment of the African American teens sparked large protests.
"There's been an increase in nooses since Jena on college campuses and in the workplace," Shinbaum said.
A federal hearing was held on Capitol Hill Oct. 16 to tackle the issue of whether Louisiana and public school officials mishandled the events surrounding the Jena 6 case and related racial tensions in the community.
"As a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study demonstrated, the total number of hate crimes in the United States may be 20 to 30 times greater than the FBI statistics reflect, and race is their most common motivation," testified Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group.
Cohen said schools, including colleges, are the third most common venue for hate crimes in the United States.
The Justice Department's testimony to the Judiciary Committee addressed its probe into Jena 6 and other recent racial attacks.
"A noose is a powerful symbol of hate and racially-motivated violence, and it can, in certain circumstances, constitute the basis for a prosecution under federal criminal civil rights law," said the DOJ.
Justice officials said they are "taking very seriously" reports of noose hangings across the country, including in Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, in addition to those in Louisiana.
"In each of these cases, federal authorities have opened cases and are investigating whether the conduct constituted a prosecutable violation of federal law," the DOJ said at the hearing.
Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said the feds are also looking into other bias-based acts "involving racial or religious threats" too.
"We will investigate a variety of circumstances that include evidence of hate crimes," he said.
But the Justice Department stopped short of providing specifics on the status of their probes, which incidents they're focusing on and what they've learned so far. For now, no federal hate crimes task force has been formed to deal collectively with the attacks.
In 2005, the most recent year for which the FBI has statistics, law enforcement agencies reported that 8,804 people were victims of hate crimes — 56 percent of them targeted because of race, 16 percent because of religion, 14 percent because of ethnicity, 14 percent because of sexual orientation and .6 percent because of disability.
Among the more than 12,000 agencies that submitted hate crime data to the feds, 7,163 hate crime incidents were documented, according to the FBI.
Hate crime numbers for 2006 are due out Nov. 19, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting division.
Earlier this month, Columbia University had its own smattering of incidents — with a noose placed on the office door of a black female professor and a swastika drawn in a bathroom stall on campus. Two blacks in the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut were also taunted recently with nooses, and something appearing to be a hangman's rope was found in a tree on the University of Maryland campus.
Some wonder whether all the news stories of nooses and swastikas are reflective of a real increase or whether the media has created the perception that such attacks are on the rise by latching onto the trend so tenaciously.
But no matter what the statistics show, many say that federal and local government involvement is imperative.
"We're still fighting for an all-inclusive federal hate crime law," said Shinbaum of the ADL. "We think as much as law enforcement can be involved, it should. Then the message is sent: Society rejects this kind of thing and there are very strong consequences for it."