The FBI, Southern Poverty Law Center and Metro Nashville Police Department are all reporting a rise in hate crimes. Community leaders say it's time for important conversations.
Sabina Mohyuddin was born and raised in Nashville. She's Muslim and wears a hijab — something she's done since she was in the 7th grade. In middle school, one of her classmates tried to rip it off. Now an adult with daughters of her own, Mohyuddin can’t help but be worried that they might experience the same.
“At that time, people didn’t know what to make of me. I was probably the first girl to wear a scarf in the public school system in Nashville,” Mohyuddin says.
“I understand that some people just think it’s an extra piece of cloth, but would you pull off a girl’s shirt walking down the hall? There’s this separation of what is public and what is private. At home, girls don’t wear a scarf, but in a public space, to have it pulled off is humiliating.”
Mohyuddin is with the American Muslim Advisory Council and serves as the Middle Tennessee program manager. Her story is one of countless others in the state and across the country — an incident of unprovoked violence fueled by a perpetrator’s own biases against another person. It could be against race, religion, disability, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Whatever the definition, both the FBI in November 2017 and the Southern Poverty Law Center in February of this year reported that hate crimes are on the rise nationally. According to the Metro Nashville Police Department, numbers are increasing in Nashville as well. The SPLC reported that there are 37 active hate groups in Tennessee, and according to Kris Mumford, public information officer with the MNPD, Nashville’s 14 hate crimes in 2016 increased to 22 this past year, resulting in 32 victims.
In January of 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the majority of hate crimes committed go unreported. Mohyuddin says that dovetails with her experience, but noted exceptions: the vandalism at a Murfreesboro mosque in 2017 and a November 2018 incident during which a teacher pulled off a student’s hijab and posted the video to social media.
“There are always small aggressions that happen that go unreported. A lot of times in the Muslim community, it’s just to be expected — the dirty looks, the comments, people get used to it. They don’t feel like it’s important to report until it gets to a physical nature,” she says.
Mel Fowler-Green sees the same thing in her role as the executive director of the Metro Human Relations Commission (MHRC). The MHRC that was initially created after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to provide federal infrastructure to enforce the civil rights laws in local communities. In 2016, she and At-Large Council Member Bob Mendes joined other organizations in Nashville to form the Respect Nashville coalition, encouraging Nashvillians to report acts of hate, bias, harassment, and intimidation and to promote the city’s principle of respecting neighbors.
“Our first goal was to send a message to Nashvillians that this is not how we do things. We are a welcoming community and respect everyone who lives in and visits this city,” she says. “We know anecdotally from many of our community partners who do direct services on behalf of groups at-risk of being victims of hate crimes that they receive reports often of incidences they believe could potentially rise to the level of a hate crime. In most of these instances, the victim is not comfortable reporting, and there are a number of reasons for that depending on who the person is.”
Fowler-Green also said there is an important distinction to be made between discrimination or bias and an offense that meets federal statues for a hate crime.
“There is a difference between saying this thing someone did offended me and a crime that was motivated by hate,” Fowler-Green says. She worked as a public interest attorney in litigation for 15 years. “Every act that is motivated by bias is not a hate crime. It has to be a criminal offense that is motivated by bias.”
Mumford said so far in 2018, only one hate crime has been reported, compared to seven at this time last year. Could numbers be going down in 2018 after a few years of incline? Nashville hopes so.
“How this affects our community is an important conversation to have. Those conversations lead to [more understanding], and we have to understand before we can start to challenge things as a Nashville community,” Mohyuddin says.
If you or someone you know has experienced what you think is a hate crime, contact MNPD to file a report. For community support, organizations like Respect Nashville and the AMAC are also available.
Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter
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