Local Leaders Hold Anti-Hate Crime Forum

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 Due to the recent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes occurring throughout the country, and on the Rockaway peninsula, the need to protect our community from such crimes is at an all-time high. Because Rockaway has been directly affected on separate occasions, local leaders, Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr. and Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, teamed up with The Simon Wiesenthal Center, and held a town hall meeting at the  West End Temple, on Thursday, February 20 to discuss ways to combat hate. As director of the Eastern Region Simon Wiesenthal Center, Michael Cohen, said in his opening introduction, “It is not a question of what happened, and let’s react. It is a question of, let’s get ahead of the issue.”

The panel consisted of Michael Brovner, deputy chief of Gang Violence and Hate Crimes from the Queens district attorney’s office, Mark Molinari, deputy inspector and head of the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force and Commanding Officer of the NYPD 100th Precinct, Captain Louron Hall, who answered all the questions that concerned residents raised. Also in attendance were Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, representatives from the National Parks Service, Reverend Richard Ahlemeyer of St. Camillus Catholic Church, and West End Temple’s Rabbi Marjorie Sloane. They gathered with concerned community members who had one mission—to decrease hate and show support for the Jewish community.

Although the peninsula has not had any severe anti-Semitic crimes since Labor Day, when the Silver Gull Beach Club and Beach 138th Street were vandalized with derogatory words and symbols aimed at the Jewish community, Rockaway’s leaders felt it necessary to be proactive. They began by giving a brief background on the Silver Gull incident, explaining how diligent and responsive the U.S. Park Police has been in their investigation. The owner of the National Parks Concessions, Ortega Family Enterprises, reached out to the Simon Wiesenthal Center immediately after the incident, asking for help. With all three entities working together, NPS, Ortega, National Parks and the Simon Wiesenthal Center decided that their leadership teams must have proper training on how to deal with these types of issues. In the first week of March, members of the NPS are flying to Los Angeles to receive a three-day training, which they will then teach to all their seasonal employees, so all who are employed with NPS will be fully prepared to deal with such hate crimes. Now they’re hoping the community will also be prepared.

Katz told everyone, “We need to stand as a community, and watch each other’s backs.” She explained that in order to understand hate crimes and do the right thing, when we see it, we must end it. As Queens district attorney, Katz reassured everyone in the room that she, as well as her team, take hate crimes very seriously. Although they are much harder to prosecute, she said, “We will also not tolerate people going after one another in a county where we are 200 countries and 190 languages, simply because of the color of their skin, or the faith they choose. That’s not happening here, in Queens County.”

Law enforcement officials also expressed how seriously they take hate crimes, by explaining to the people that even if they feel the crime or harassment is something minute, people must call 911 so the NYPD are able to monitor such events, and conduct a full investigation if needed. Brovner elaborated further, by expressing how important it is to leave all evidence untouched, so their investigation can be as thorough as possible. He gave an example of graffiti vandalism, saying that the NYPD will be able to determine approximately how tall a suspect is, based on the size and height of the graffiti. Understanding that it is common nature for people to want to erase such horrible images, and words of hate, Brovner stressed to the room that we can all do our part by reporting everything we see, and putting our faith in the NYPD to do their job.

Molinari then explained in detail, the three different types of harassment, and what would be considered a hate crime. The first type of harassment is a verbal threat, and when one is intimidated by another’s behavior, which would result in an arrest if necessary. The second type of harassment is using the same language, but also targeting the identity. If this threatening behavior targets a person’s identity, then it would be considered a hate crime. Molinari also elaborated that if someone yells in general, negative hate speech, but doesn’t make any physical/verbal threat to another, then they are technically protected by free speech.

The majority of questions raised by the audience regarded how to protect children from witnessing hate crimes on a daily basis. In response, Cohen said, “There is nothing more powerful than education.” Cohen said that in this day and age, where social media plays a huge part in most children’s lives, we need to teach our children about social responsibility. He also stated that we need to include the entire school community in this conversation, meaning parents should be involved. While parents may feel the need to shelter their children from such crimes, they should instead have constant conversations about these crimes happening throughout the country. By raising awareness, children will feel more equipped to report a crime, or stand up for their classmate who may be a victim of hateful words.

Based on the questions raised and answered, Addabbo and Amato assured those in attendance that they will look into establishing some type of interfaith group or coalition to promote tolerance. By creating a coalition comprised of people of many different faiths, they can help teach children, as well as the whole community, that we are no different from one another and we all need to be treated with respect. They also reassured people to report anything they see, especially on social media platforms. Power works in numbers, so the more times people report negative comments, the more likely it will be removed.

The meeting concluded with Addabbo and Amato’s closing statements, where they reminded people to reach out to them if they have any additional ideas on how to decrease hate in the community. If you missed this meeting, Addabbo and Amato, as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, are sponsoring a second meeting on March 5, at the Bayswater Jewish Center (2355 Healy Ave. in Far Rockaway) at 6 p.m.

 By Marina Cregan

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