PULLMAN, Wash.–Only the combined efforts of all human rights groups over the long haul will stop the incidence of hate crimes, said one of the Northwest’s leading hate crime fighters in an open forum at Washington State University Monday night.
The forum, “Not in Our Universities/Not in Our Communities: A Community Dialogue,” began a series of activities on the Palouse in support of community, civility and social justice.
“This is not a Black problem. This is not a Jewish problem. This is not a gay/lesbian problem. This is a community problem,” said Bill Wassmuth, executive director for the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment and the forum’s featured speaker. “We can’t fight bigotry alone.”
After the recent posting of flyers and other hate acts locally, WSU, the city of Pullman and the larger community have united to coordinate efforts and a series of activities in the coming year to address the incidents and raise awareness.
Wassmuth presented data on the scope of the problem for the 100-plus-member audience in the Compton Union Building:
Assaults make up 30 percent of hate crimes.
Some groups have higher victimization rates; gay men are 400 times more likely to become victims of hate crimes.
These types of assaults are more severe, also causing more emotional harm to the victims.
Two-thirds of the victims had experienced multiple attacks before deciding to report.
Most of the crimes are not committed by organized groups, rather by unidentified strangers.
Hate crimes increase the potential to ignite community disorder.
According to statistics reported by law enforcement, the incidence of hate crimes in the Northwest fell in 1996. Washington recorded 199 such crimes, down 62 from 1995, and Idaho reported 72, a decline of 43 from 1995. But Wassmuth said the NWC is not sure why the decline has taken place. If fewer people are reporting the crimes, the rosy picture is not completely accurate.
The NWC executive director pointed to the political arena for other indicators of climate, starting with the debate over affirmative action. Some of the same inequalities that gave rise to affirmative action in the first place still exist, Wassmuth said. Gaps in earning power are still present. “The playing field is not level.” The recent failure of a Washington initiative that would have prevented the firing of gay and lesbian employees, and anti-immigrant sentiment also are sobering, he added.
In the end, all groups concerned with human rights must come together to create courses of action, to speak out in communities, to place messages on billboards and ads in newspapers–in essence, to break the silence, Wassmuth said.
“That’s more than just words; that’s taking a stand. We must be willing to enter the dialogue, be honest with ourselves and be honest with others, to help each other face the fear that ignorance breeds,” he said. “Human rights are not negotiable.”
Wassmuth has served as executive director of NWC since 1989. The organization has been a leader in the fight against bigotry in the Northwest since 1987 by monitoring supremacist activity, distributing information on hate crimes and providing resources and training to grassroots community groups. The NWC has more than 250 organizational and more than 550 individual members from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.
An Idaho native, Wassmuth has been involved in the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. His visibility as task force chairman led to the bombing of his home by members of the Aryan Nations in 1986. He also serves as chair of the Washington State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Also speaking at the Monday forum were WSU Provost Gretchen Bataille and University of Idaho Associate Provost Dene Thomas.
Editor’s Note: To reach the coalition, call the NWC office in Seattle at 206/233-9136.