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Trump Effect: A Reporter on the Hate Beat Finds Stories Too Close to Home

| December 26, 2016

hate crimes us

Hate is nothing new on the American landscape, but hate crimes have been spiking since the emergence of Donald Trump as candidate and president. (Urban Sea Star)

“What’s going on, Daddy?” asked my 6-year-old son.

It was the morning of Nov. 12, a Saturday — or “Dadurday” at my house — and we were in my pickup truck, headed to a family outing. 


But now, about five minutes from our home in El Sobrante, California, our progress had halted: yellow plastic crime scene tape stretched across the road, blocking all traffic. I saw no signs of a car crash — no twisted and deformed automobiles, no skid marks streaking across the pavement, no piles of broken glass. What I did see were a whole lot of sheriff’s deputies standing around looking very grim. I’ve been a journalist for many years. I’ve reported on enough crimes to have recurring nightmares. My guess was that someone had been murdered.

What do you say when someone has been killed in front of your local library?

Me, I said nothing. “I don’t know, son,” I replied, as I wheeled the truck around.

Days later, authorities made an announcement about the crime: Three men had beaten, robbed and shot William Sims, a 28-year-old African American, leaving his body in the roadway, the sheriff’s department alleged. The killing was at least partially motivated by racism, according to prosecutors, who filed hate-crime charges.

I started my job as a reporter with ProPublica by covering hate crimes in New Orleans eight years ago. Now I’m back on the beat. And the stories are in my backyard — and all across the rest of the nation.

A wave of ugly incidents has washed over the country in the weeks since Donald J. Trump was elected; one watchdog group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, counted some 867 episodes of hate and intimidation in the 10 days following the election. Many were clearly fueled by politics — the graffiti in Wellsville, New York (“Make America White Again” next to a massive swastika), the man in Chicago who called a Muslim woman a “sand-nigger” before adding, “Thank God Trump is now president. He’s gonna deport your terrorist ass.”

The aggression has flowed in both directions: There have also been at least two dozen reported attacks on Trump supporters.

Sims was murdered just a few days after Trump’s victory at the polls. In my community, I heard many questions: Was the slaying a random crime? What role, if any, did race play in the incident? Was this the sort of politically inspired crime we’ve seen in so many other places, the types of episodes I’ll be exploring in the years to come?

A few weeks later, I was at the county courthouse in Richmond, not far from El Sobrante. It’s a dismal building. Think “Better Call Saul.” I was sitting in the back of a small courtroom with low ceilings, harsh fluorescent lights, and, on one side, a cage made of metal bars and thick sheets of bulletproof polycarbonate plastic. Clad in yellow sweatshirts, inmates stared out at the judge from the cage.

I was there to witness the arraignment of Chase Little and Colton Tye LeBlanc, two white men accused of attacking an adherent of the Sikh faith in a roadway altercation.

The episode had attracted national media coverage when it occurred back in September, just before the first the debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton. It seems to have started at a stop light in Richmond. Little and LeBlanc were with three or four other guys in a Ford F-150 pickup truck, while Maan Singh Khalsa, who is of Indian descent, was in the next lane over in a sedan. Somebody in the truck chucked a beer can at Khalsa, a 41-year-old IT specialist and caregiver to the elderly. Unpleasantries were exchanged.

Then, allegedly, Little and LeBlanc attacked Khalsa, pulling the man’s head through the window of his car, punching him in the face until his teeth came loose, damaging his eye, and, at some point, yanking off his turban and hacking at his long dark hair with a knife. Reportedly one of the men yelled, “Cut off his [expletive] hair!” during the attack. In the course of the assault, Khalsa injured a finger, which later grew infected, turned black and necrotic, and had to be amputated.

For followers of Sikhism, which is entirely distinct from Islam or Hinduism, hair is sacred, an article of faith. The gurus who founded the religion some 500 years ago in the Punjab region of South Asia directed male followers to keep their locks unshorn as a symbol of living humbly and in harmony with God; the turban was to be worn as a sign of piety and commitment to the faith.  As the Sikh Coalition, a national civil-rights group, put it in a letter to the county prosecutor, “When a Sikh ties a turban, the turban ceases to be just a piece of cloth and becomes one and the same with the Sikh’s head. It is a religious commitment without which the believer ceases to be a Sikh.”

When I read about the incident in the local news, I was stunned. The crime had occurred just a few miles from my home.

As I learned more about the case, I found out that LeBlanc and Little weren’t from anywhere near California. They were from Texas. They had come to our state to work a short-term gig at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond.

By the time LeBlanc and Little were formally arraigned, the media had largely forgotten about the attack. There was only one other reporter in the courtroom as the men stood and faced the judge.

Outside the courtroom, I approached the men. LeBlanc, 24, was in a brown plaid western shirt, his face framed by a cascade of sandy-blond hair hanging down past his shoulders. Little, 31, looked depressed as he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his fancy jeans. He was wearing cowboy boots.

I had so many questions. Over and over Trump had portrayed immigrants as a profound threat to the existence of the republic, an incoming swarm of criminals and job-stealers and terrorists. Had Little and LeBlanc heard these statements? Had they taken them as an entreaty to violence?

Both defendants were courteous. But neither was eager to talk. They had been charged with “assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury” and assault with a deadly weapon (the knife), charges prosecutors had augmented by adding special hate-crime enhancements. Both were facing potential prison sentences.

Later, LeBlanc’s attorney, Joseph Tully, emailed me a statement: “There is no evidence that this was a ‘hate crime’ as suggested by the State. In the alleged victim’s statement to the police, he did not report facts or opinion that the actions had anything to do with hate, i.e. related to ethnicity or belief. This was simply a fight over a beer can at a stop light which can’t be elevated to a hate crime under any circumstance.”

Khalsa, continued Tully, had become outraged and aggressive when his car was pelted with the can — and now he was using current concerns about hate crimes in the age of Trump as “cover” for his own bad behavior.

The Sikh Coalition, which has examined the matter closely, strongly disputed that characterization of events. “The violent assault and desecration of Mr. Khalsa’s religious articles of faith were motivated by clear bias and fit the definition of a hate crime,” said Harsimran Kaur, the coalition’s legal director. “This bias was reported to police immediately and we have confidence that the legal system will clearly see the facts for what they are.”

Khalsa declined to speak to the media while the case was moving through the courts.

My son wanted to know where I was going. “I gotta work, buddy, sorry,” I told him.

It was Dec. 3 — another Saturday — and there was a vigil for William Sims at the site where he died, in front of the library. In life, Sims had been known for his musical talent — violin, saxophone, piano, guitar, voice. Now, in death, he was becoming known as the guy who got killed by three racists.

For many in the crowd there was a sense that something profound had changed in American life, that Sims, and Khalsa before him, were victims of a new viciousness. “There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear,” said Satinder Singh Malhi, a Sikh who attends the local gurdwara, or temple, and had come to the vigil with his family. “Basically we had a presidential candidate, now our president, who has given people license to express their prejudices.”

The exact motives for the killing, though, remained murky. A lawyer for one of the accused told the local media his client wasn’t a racist and didn’t have “a hateful bone in his body.” Mark Peterson, the Contra Costa County District Attorney, had said little publicly about the case.

“I don’t know the whole story,” Nancy Burke, an El Sobrante business owner, told me as we spoke in front of a makeshift memorial to Sims. “I don’t think anybody does.”

I went home and wrapped my arms around my squirmy little boy and pulled him close for a few moments.

I didn’t know what else to do.

–A.C. Thomson, ProPublica

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27 Responses for “Trump Effect: A Reporter on the Hate Beat Finds Stories Too Close to Home”

  1. Layla says:

    Shame on you for pushing this hate. What do you tell those families who have lost loved ones in Sanctuary cities? These are all tragedies, but to paint half the country as being responsible for them is doing more of the same.

  2. r&r says:

    Why is it when a black gets killed it’s a hate or racism and assumed to be whites? When a white guy gets killed by a black it’s a justified killing. Trump has had nothing to do this, it’s a continuation of Obama and his permission to let them have their fun.

  3. Sherry says:

    There’s a very long list of stories like this. . . how incredibly sad and disheartening for our country. . . take the time:http://www.abc57.com/story/34117156/make-america-white-again-hate-speech-and-crimes-post-election

  4. Pogo says:

    “I smell blood and an era of prominent madmen.”

    ― W.H. Auden

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._H._Auden

  5. Veteran says:

    These crimes have been committed for years by idiots that are a tiny percent of the population. Sorry, it’s tragic but not a new trend.

  6. Katie Semore says:

    Even if someone doesn’t commit hate crimes or act hateful against those who are different than their own, if they deny that Trump’s rhetoric is responsible for the increase in hate crimes, they are part of the problem. Trump’s hateful, misguided and relentless pandering to those who would act this way has made it okay, in their minds, to act this way. He has set us back decades. I know these types have always been with us, but they hid it as it was unacceptable in polite society. Trump is responsible for bringing the scum out where it can be seen.

  7. B says:

    Totally biased against Trump. It makes the whole article worthless even though the rest seems I interesting.

  8. Brian says:

    So Trump is responsible for hate crimes now? What a load of left-wing crap. Trump has nothing to do with these isolated incidents. And by the way, pal – just what IS a “hate crime”? When the Somali mowed down people with his car and got out stabbing people at Ohio State, was that a hate crime? Were the San Bernadino and Orlando shootings – carried out by “Praise Allah” shouting scumbags – hate crimes? How about the killing of cops in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and numerous other places – hate crimes? I guess, according to your “logic”, there are certain requirements to becoming the perpetrator of a hate crime – a plaid western shirt, long blond hair, cowboy boots, etc. And as to “a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear” – that’s just a hangover from the sore loser syndrome.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Yup its all trumps fault. Lets NOT blame the idiots who ACUALITY did this. Also lets overlook all the false “hate” crimes that where blamed on trump supporters.

  10. The Oracle says:

    Stupid comment. Should we blame Obama for this type of conduct? After all he is the President of the United States, not Trump. Either assertion is ridiculous.

  11. Ron says:

    Give me a break. This hated was cause by our present President and the slanted media.

  12. footballen says:

    OK so how is any of that on Trump? Seriously it is a stretch to even consider that. Should I tell you the story of 79 other Americans who died the same day at the hands of hateful people? What does any of it have to do with our president elect? The author is the racist!!!!!!!

  13. MannyHM says:

    Sikhism has nothing to do with terrorism and with terrorists. Those murderers of 9/11 were not wearing turbans. They were not Sikhs. The schools and the news media can do a better job of educating diversity in religion.

  14. Algernon says:

    If only the bigots had stayed in school long enough to learn, in world history or comparative religion classes, that the Sikh community is not Arabic, as well as some of the differences among Arabs in general.

    Of course that presumes that their local school boards would have funded those classes anyway.

    So many of the problems today fall back on incomplete and inadequate education in grade and high school. Communities should demand more from public AND private schools.

  15. Retiredlawenforcement says:

    I’m confused is President Elect Trump the cause of all hate crimes in this country ? So prior to his election was there ever any other ‘HATE CRIME’s” committed and reported By the media?

    Talk about one sided.

  16. palmcoaster says:

    Can we all live in peace and respect our fellow humans and our animals on this Earth. Life is too short to be lived with so much unjustified hate and cruelty…

  17. another vet says:

    I wonder why the media doesnt print stories like this when the victims are white?

  18. Common Sense says:

    Welcome to Trump’s Amerika.

  19. Mark says:

    “The aggression has flowed in both directions” blows your entire argument. What exactly has Trump said or done to give “people license to express their prejudices”? Was it the statements about supporting the police? Or was it the statements about building a wall? Maybe it was the statements about not forgetting black people? Or maybe it was the ones about destroying ISIS? I know, maybe it’s about his statements to “drain the swamp”. Just imagine, if we elected hillary all would be better. Whoah is us!

    When will any liberal take responsibility for their own actions?

  20. Fred says:

    Gee, what’s next hate crimes against the liberal left ? One can only hope !!!!

  21. Adam Frank says:

    It’s interesting that the author isn’t named “stretch” to match his story ( as in anti-Trump fairy tale).I am not sure what the Sikh’s have to do with this fairy tale, but President-elect Trump nominated a woman of Sikh heritage, Gov. Nikki Haley, for UN Ambassador. I am afraid that you hate mongers are trumped, yet again.

  22. James J says:

    To add to what Veteran said, hate crimes are disgusting wherever you find them. They are committed by a tiny , unmeasurable minority of the population. Funny, though, that no mention is made here about hate crimes committed on behalf of the left. Funny too, how the MSM jumps through hoops to deny them when they occur by calling them things like “workplace violence”. Won’t even call terrorist attacks or cop killings hate crimes. By the way any article that mentions the most biased Southern Poverty Law Center immediately sacrifices its credibility with me.

  23. Brian says:

    Hello FlaglerLive; I’m just curious – why is my comment “awaiting moderation”? I also commented Dec. 21 on the electoral college article – still awaiting moderation. Again, just curious. Thanks.

    • FlaglerLive says:

      Brian, thank you for that unusually polite reminder. If you were to always write this way, your comments would more often see light of day. Happy New Year.

  24. Lin says:

    That anyone is beaten is awful. The story certainly tugs on my heart. The author succeeds there. But writing fiction would be a better fitting occupation for this author.

    I don’t doubt racism exists but to attribute it to a candidate that hasn’t taken office is bias. Author could have included those false accusations and details for tugs at the heartstrings for the poor Trump supporters that were beaten. Maybe some details about the democrats setting up the trump supporters at the rallies. Oh and some real historical context from the days of slavery and who voted to keep it in place. And maybe some details about the police officers who were ambushed and murdered.

    I am asking for a totally different article I guess. I miss those point/counterpoint journalism days.

  25. Mark says:

    Correct, Trump has brought about hate. Just look at the demonstrations and the hate filled stories of those who don’t accept the election results and the continued biased media reporting. He has brought liberal haters to the forefront of our society.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Political correctness kept those with a hateful heart hidden most of the time, it was Trump who said that political correctness is a bad thing, signaling that it is okay for those with hateful hearts to come out of the shadows and spew and act on their hatefulness, bigotry, and racism. Why cannot people who have the ability to read and write not understand this simple fact? Maybe they just want to ignore it because it touches too close to home for them.

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