Jersey’s Steps to Create a No-Hate State

As bias crimes proliferate, New Jersey is working to combat slurs and violence. 

bias crimes
Illustration by Brian Hubble

The video was posted online on New Year’s Day. Its message was clear. Using the N-word, three freshman girls from Nutley High School shouted their hatred of African-Americans.

Like many in Nutley, Alexa Forcer, a senior at the high school, was appalled. But unlike some who saw the video, Forcer, who is African-American, wasn’t particularly surprised. “That kind of language is used occasionally at school,” she says, “but it’s rarely reported, either by staff or students.”

This time would be different. Forcer wrote to the school’s administration letting them know that she and other minority students were deeply disturbed by the video. The school responded by forming an Equity Team, a group of students who have begun to tackle bias at its roots by canvassing their peers and analyzing the data that emerges. “I am beyond thankful that the school is beginning a journey to change the culture,” Forcer says.

The Nutley initiative is a small but hopeful step against hate, at a time when bias incidents across the state are proliferating. A sampling of recent incidents reveals an array of victims that mirrors New Jersey’s overall diversity: A 14-year-old transgender student was beaten in the hallway of a Newark high school; a group of adult men in a car sprayed a dark liquid at worshippers leaving a Teaneck synagogue; a Hindu priest was beaten in the parking lot of a Mahwah shopping center while his 6-year-old daughter cowered in the back seat of his car and the attacker allegedly yelled, “Dirty Indian!”;  and, in the most high-profile incident, a man and a woman armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun entered a kosher deli in Jersey City and shot and killed the owner, a worker and a bystander, after having killed a police lieutenant in a nearby cemetery.  

Since 2016, the United States has been awash in a rising wave of hate. According to the FBI, hate crimes across America surged by 17 percent in 2017; numbers released at the end of last year show a slight dip in these crimes overall, but a 12 percent spike in violent hate crimes. 

[RELATED: In Ridgewood, a Religious Safe Space Like No Other]

The wave seems to have hit the Garden State with particular force. According to the state attorney general’s office, New Jersey law enforcement received 944 reports of bias incidents in 2019, a 65 percent increase over the previous year and the largest annual spike since the state began keeping records in 1991. That gives New Jersey the dubious distinction of third place for hate incidents in the nation, after Washington State and California. 

We’re also home to the fourth largest number of active hate groups in the nation, which may help explain the 250 percent increase in the spread of white supremacist propaganda in the state in 2019. In February of this year, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness raised the threat level for these groups from moderate to high, meaning attacks could be imminent. (In comparison, the state’s threat level for international terror organizations, like Al Qaeda and ISIS, is considered low.)  

In search of recruits, white supremacist organizations have increasingly focused their propaganda campaigns on the state’s college campuses. In February 2017, a poster featuring a silhouette of the Twin Towers, which reads, “Imagine a Muslim-free America,” was discovered on a Rutgers University building in New Brunswick; it contained contact information for American Vanguard, a neo-Nazi organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the notorious Unite the Right rally of 2017 that resulted in the death of a counterprotester. 

Jonathan Golden, director of Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict and a member of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security’s advisory council, notes, “In statistics gathered by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, New Jersey has consistently ranked in the top 10 for bias crimes.” A caveat: Those rankings are based on reported crimes, and states vary in the consistency of their reporting (which is voluntary) and in the way they legally define a hate crime—or, more acurately, a bias incident. (“Hate crime” isn’t a legal term, since crimes not motivated by bias can nevertheless be motivated by hate.)  

In fact, says Jessica S. Henry, associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University, “New Jersey’s statute is very inclusive.” It defines a bias incident as any attempt to intimidate a group or individual on the basis of race, color, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or national origin. Not all states include the final five categories, and five states—Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming—have no bias statutes at all.

* * *

While some experts question the exact numbers, most agree that bias crimes are climbing, though why that’s happening is open to speculation. Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, has had ample reason to ponder the question since December 2019, when the attack on the kosher deli in his city made national headlines. 

“I think social media has helped connect people that were previously disconnected,” says Fulop. A 2019 study by the Anti-Defamation League found “overwhelming” evidence suggesting that online activity by white supremacist groups “can serve to spread modern terror in ways that could not have been predicted from the early days of social media.” The ADL also notes that those white supremacist groups are seeking to recruit “white teenage boys.” (The FBI reported that, in 2017, 17 percent of the country’s hate crimes were committed by individuals under the age of 18.)

“Those of us in law enforcement are concerned about the number of offenses involving young people,” says Christopher Kuberiet, acting prosecutor of Middlesex County. To address the concern, Governor Phil Murphy last year formed the interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias.

Hate talk hasn’t just proliferated on the Internet. Jon Oliveira, director of communications for the LGBTQ advocacy organization Garden State Equality, says, “What we see nationally is that the culture and climate is moving in a negative direction, where hate, violence, and bigotry are being condoned from the highest levels of government.” Whether the White House itself has stirred up bigotry is a matter for debate, but according to a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report, the number of hate groups in the country rose from 917 in 2016 to 954 in 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and to 1,020 in 2018. The idea that the president’s perceived anti-immigrant stance has helped fuel the uptick in bias incidents has been expressed by a number of prominent voices, including Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

Whatever its cause, the rise in hate has rattled religious, ethnic and other groups that have been targeted. In 2018, 35 percent of New Jersey’s bias crimes were committed against religious groups or against individuals on the basis of religion—second only to race/ethnicity/ancestry at 54 percent. Elie Katz, Teaneck’s deputy mayor, says town residents were unnerved by a series of recent anti-Semitic episodes, including an attack on patrons at a kosher bagel store and the smashing of a synagogue window. “Those incidents and the spraying incident affected the community tremendously,” he says. “People are asking, ‘Do I have to worry about going to pray?’”

Hate doesn’t just target the powerless. During Hoboken’s 2017 mayoral election, campaign workers for Ravi Bhalla, a member of the Sikh faith, found out that someone was leaving flyers for Bhalla’s opponent on the windshields of parked cars. The flyers had been doctored to include the boldface phrase, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town.” 

“It felt like a punch to my gut,” says Bhalla, a New Jersey native who had been exposed to his share of intimidation and bullying while growing up. Still, the association of the word “terrorism” with the photograph of a bearded man wearing a turban was particularly galling. “The turban and beard are articles of the Sikh faith,” he says, “and they stand for the direct opposite of terrorism: for universal human rights, for the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, for peace.” He notes that Hoboken tends to be an inclusive and accepting community, and he suspects the perpetrator came from out of town.

* * *

These and similar incidents in the Garden State have given rise to recent efforts aimed at mitigating the hate. In January, the governor signed into law two bills, one expanding the definition of domestic terrorism to include crimes against individuals intended to promote terror and based on “race, religions, sexual orientation, gender, or creed,” and the other to increase funding for security against attacks on nonprofit groups at high risk—including religious schools, synagogues, and churches.  

Legislation has also been advanced that would require the attorney general’s office to report to the FBI not just bias crimes, but also acts of bias intimidation, defined as the commission of an offense meant to intimidate a person or group on the basis of the same criteria governing bias crimes. And in February, a bipartisan trio of state legislators, including Assemblyman Gary Shaer, D-Passaic, proposed a bill that would allow armed guards in houses of worship.  

These bills are intended to deter bias crimes with increased security, scrutiny and higher sentences. But prosecuting bias crimes—which involves adding a bias charge on top of another charge, such as assault—is challenging. “It requires gathering enough information and evidence to establish a perpetrator’s intent beyond a reasonable doubt,” Kuberiet explains. If a person damages a religious symbol, for instance, the offense is likely to be considered simple vandalism, unless the perpetrator leaves a message of hate at the scene or has made his bigotry public, in print, say, or through an online video.

Of course, you can’t prosecute a hate crime that isn’t reported. Given that these offenses are meant to intimidate, victims are often reluctant to come forward. And some common targets of bias—particularly undocumented immigrants—have a distrust of law enforcement that often keeps them from filing a report. Finally, there’s a chance that small offenses—graffiti or the shouting of slurs—may be considered too minor to report.

[RELATED: New Jerseyans Are Battling Covid-19 with Acts of Kindness]

Kuberiet stresses that even if a report doesn’t result in prosecution, it can be helpful in the handling of future bias crimes. “We believe that reporting is the key to solving, and prosecuting, more of these incidents,” he says. He’s as frustrated as the public that out of 104 reported bias incidents in Middlesex last year, only one, so far, is being prosecuted. “The majority of cases investigated have no suspects, and do not rise to the level of bias intimidation, Kuberiet says.

Considering the difficulty of prosecution, it’s clear that hate has to be addressed in other ways as well, and that’s happening in the public and private sectors. In 2018, New Jersey became the second state, after California, to pass a law requiring an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in all public schools. And in January of this year, the ADL of New York/New Jersey announced a partnership with the NAACP to advocate against bias. 

That’s the kind of alliance that Jonathan Golden believes can overcome hate in the long run. “At the end of the day,” he says, “the only thing that has ever protected people is to have allies.” (See below.)

So while defensive measures like posting armed guards at houses of worship may help to deflect attacks, they’re not likely to rein in hate. “There’s this knee-jerk response to hunker down and put up walls,” Golden says. “But though you may not see immediate dividends, it’s much better to invest in, and to build, good relations with your neighbors. If you want to have an ally, you need to be an ally.” 

In response to the recent escalation in bias incidents and expressions of hate, a grassroots movement, dedicated to promoting acceptance, appears to be building across the state. Here are a few examples:

♦ In December, following the deadly shooting at a kosher deli in Jersey City, local leaders from a variety of faiths met with community organizers and city councilmembers at the city’s Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center to map a way forward amid the fear and anger the incident stirred up. Acknowledging tensions between the Jewish and African-American communities, attendees at the meeting stressed the need to develop ongoing communication between the two groups and among all the city’s diverse populations. “We have to be more than just yesterday’s news,” noted Rabbi Avi Schnall, one of a number of clergymen and -women at the gathering.

♦ “We are all here today because New Jersey is a no-hate state.” Those were the opening words of Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who represents New Jersey’s 5th District, at a January 7 rally that brought together federal and local leaders, first responders, clergy from across North Jersey, and the NAACP of Bergen County to speak out against anti-Semitism and the spate of anti-Semitic acts that recently plagued New York and New Jersey. “Diversity,” Gottheimer noted, “is our greatest strength.”

♦ In response to a series of small but unsettling bias incidents in Highland Park, residents and community leaders came together on the evening of January 16 to express solidarity and denounce intolerance. Alex Kharazi, president of the Franklin Township Interfaith Council, said the purpose of the gathering was “to immunize our communities from any act of hate and bigotry and send the message of love and peace and justice to the world.”

♦ On February 9, Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah hosted a panel discussion tackling the question of how to stand up to anti-Semitism and hate. The speakers, including senior rabbi Chaim Poupko, Englewood city councilman Michael Cohen and Bergen County sheriff Anthony Cureton, called for individuals, law enforcement, educators and legislators to work together to mitigate hate.

♦ In March, more than 130 people gathered in South River for a panel discussion among Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy looking for ways to move beyond hate. The audience was asked to take the Pledge to Stand Up for the Other. Created in 2015 by Dr. Mohammad Ali Chaudry, founder of the New Jersey Interfaith Coalition, the pledge says, in part: “If I hear hateful comments from anyone about members of any other community, I pledge to stand up for the other and speak up to challenge bigotry in any form.”

Read more Jersey Living articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown