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FBI talk emphasizes hate speech's impact

Credit: Jacob Paul/Layout Manager Credit: Jacob Paul/Layout Manager

In response to a stark increase of hate crimes and Anti-Semitism, the FBI asked for the community’s help to prevent future hate crimes in the Pittsburgh area.

The Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh hosted four FBI agents at the Rodef Shalom Congregation on Fifth Avenue in a forum this past month about indicators of extremism and hate crimes. Rather than talk about the Tree of Life shooting, they were focused on empowering members of the community to identify and report dangerous behavior to stop hate crimes before they happen.

“We’ve never seen or heard from the Ku Klux Klan, until three or four weeks ago,” said Brad Orsini, director of Jewish community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He held up a ziplock bag containing literature from the KKK. This was one of many that had been distributed throughout Squirrel Hill in recent months. Birdseed was also present in the bags, reportedly to prevent the packages blowing away.

Orsini encouraged citizens to call 911 immediately upon coming across such material. He urged citizens not to post them on social media or open the packages. “We want a proper police response to identify each and every place these are set.”

The FBI agents distinguished between hate speech and hate crimes at the forum. “This is not illegal,” explained Agent Pulscaro, gesturing towards the distributed KKK pamphlets. The pamphlets are technically hate speech, which is protected by the First Amendment. However, the FBI agents emphasized that reporting hate speech is critical to prevent hate crimes, and citizens’ right to report is also protected by the First Amendment. Agent Matt Trosman added that “everything has intelligence value” in matters as consequential as this.

“We need those puzzle pieces to put together the picture,” stated Trosman. He encouraged community members to photograph and report any hate speech they might see. “We can’t be everywhere, we can’t see everything, so, [prevention] starts with you,” he said.

A recent FBI study found that 51 active shooters from 2000 to 2013 had declared their intent to engage in violence online or to colleagues. 54 percent of those who observed this hate speech did nothing. Of those who were alarmed enough to act, 83 percent communicated only with the soon-to-be shooter.

The FBI has seen a shift in extremism, from the fringes of society to the mainstream. They are not just recruiting “typical skinheads,” but college educated people.

“Statistically, we’re talking about white men,” said Agent Melissa Moore. Yet, she explained that it is important not to generalize and to pay attention to behavioral indicators.

Potential active shooters often espouse a “grievance narrative” against an entire group, praise past attacks and have a history of, or fascination with, violence.

Agent La Salle Burka showed a third-grade report card of the Pulse nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen. It described Mateen as prone to “verbally abusive, aggressive behavior.”

The FBI agents showed the most common logos of white supremacist groups. The Othala rune, an antiquated Viking symbol, is being used in place of the swastika. The Nazi symbol has reportedly become too identifiable.

“The internet has created a way for people to access information without any group affiliation,” emphasized Agent Moore. The agents emphasized that the FBI can only search online for dangerous and offensive material if it has been reported to them. Additionally, it is important that alarmed citizens take a screenshot of hateful material they come across before reporting it. Hateful material is often removed shortly after it has been posted, they stated.

Agents Trosman and Pulcatro emphasized resisting the urge to debate or engage with people who post hate-speech on social media, since “it is not worth putting [yourself] at risk of harassment, violence, or doxing,” each common tactics by hate groups.

“Take your community back,” urged Agent Pulcastro. “Don’t tolerate it, report it.”