Castillo: A quiet vigilance against hate takes on an added urgency

The racially-fueled violence that engulfed Charlottesville, Va., and transfixed the nation in August now is yesterday’s news. Such is the short shelf life of the 24-hour news cycle: One day we are riveted by incomprehensible images of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members marching on a college town, spitting racial epithets and anti-Semitic rhetoric — and the next day we are awestruck by the fury unleashed by Harvey, then Irma.

Let us hope we never become numb or complacent to tragedies, man-made and natural.

The hate that descended on Charlottesville on Aug. 12 is a painful memory, but it retains value, nonetheless. For members of the Austin/Travis County Hate Crimes Task Force, what happened in Charlottesville is a reminder that hate can rear its ugly face anywhere. It could happen here.

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Since it was founded in 2010, the task force has worked largely behind the scenes, mostly because its members wanted it that way. Charlottesville changed all that.

“It was time for us to kind of announce to the public the work we’re doing,” Renee Lafair, a member of the task force and the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Austin, told me recently.

“To have people chanting such hateful things (in Charlottesville) and feeling empowered by their hate is something we work to avoid every day,” Lafair said.

A few months earlier, she had privately described the task force and its work.

“Readers would be interested in learning that story,” I told her then.

She declined the invitation for a story, explaining that the work was sensitive and that much of it involved investigating racist acts.

But Charlottesville jolted the task force — which includes representatives from over 70 city and county agencies, law enforcement, civil rights and victims’ services groups, and others — into a sense of urgency.

“We wanted (people) to understand that as a community, we don’t think what happened in Charlottesville is OK, and that Austin doesn’t tolerate hate,” Lafair said about the group’s change of heart.

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The task force meets twice a year. Victims’ services representatives and elected leaders share information. Discussion about a hate incident at a bus stop, for example, might lead to a recommendation that police step up their presence there. A team of members of law enforcement and the district attorney’s office reviews hate crimes from the time they are reported to the time they are tried. A steering committee meets more often and makes recommendations to the larger group.

Lafair thinks the work can prevent more hate crimes. But, if what happened in Charlottesville were to happen here, the task force would be ready to mobilize, she said. A key component of that would be to have victims’ services groups ready to help.

Considering Austin’s reputation as a tolerant, liberal city, it might be hard for some to wrap their head around the idea that Charlottesville could happen here. But we have a history of hate crimes. A violent hate crime in downtown Austin led to creation of the task force in 2010, and from 1999 to 2015, 280 hate crimes have been reported in Travis County, according to the task force.

In Texas, a hate crime is an offense committed because of bias or prejudice against a group identified by race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference.

Twenty-two hate crimes were reported in Travis County in 2015, the most recent data available from the task force. Except for 2014, the number of hate crimes reported in Travis has risen every year since 2010.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified white and black extremist groups across the country and across Texas, including a handful in the Austin area. They include the neo-Nazi web site, The Daily Stormer. Law enforcement agencies have reported about 6,000 hate crime incidents nationwide to the FBI every year since 2010, according to the law center. Government studies put the real number much higher, about 260,000 per year.

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Lafair thinks local hate crimes are also underreported. Some victims would rather not report an incident to police. “They just want it to go away,” she said.

The events of Charlottesville startled the nation for their brazen audacity – white supremacists emboldened to act in public.

“You used to see this undercover or there was code” Lafair said. “Now, it’s young men marching with faces exposed … And that’s what we’re working against.

“Charlottesville made us work faster.”

Castillo is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at

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