Leaders from the Southern Poverty Law Center spoke at GW about white supremacy and extremism in mainstream America.
By Kristen Mitchell
On Nov. 8 when much of the country was in shock after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, white supremacists celebrated, said Richard Cohen, Southern Poverty Law Center president and chief legal strategist.
After more than a year of campaigning on bigotry, Mr. Cohen said, Mr. Trump had done what many pollsters and politicians said was impossible.
The 2016 campaign reflected what the SPLC, a nonprofit legal organization that advocates for civil rights and public interest litigation, calls an unprecedented year for hate. The number of hate groups rose for the second year in a row and reflected the changing makeup of the United States.
“The country is having growing pains,” Mr. Cohen said at a George Washington University event Monday. “President [Barack] Obama was a reflection of our changing demographics, he was also of course the object of intense backlash during his presidency. Much of that backlash was fueled by none other than the current president.”
White supremacists found a champion in Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen said. During the campaign Mr. Trump said he would ban Muslims from entering the country, called Mexicans criminals and rapists and categorized inner cities as crime-ridden. After the election Mr. Trump said he is a president for all Americans, but has not demonstrated that, Mr. Cohen said.
“I think until Mr. Trump makes amends for what he’s done, until he takes some responsibility for his words, I think our country will not heal,” he said.
Mr. Cohen and Morris Dees, SPLC founder and chief trial counsel, presented a lecture “Hate and Extremism in the Mainstream 2017” at Lisner Auditorium. George Washington President Steven Knapp introduced Mr. Cohen and highlighted the civil rights history of the venue. Lisner Auditorium opened as a segregated facility in 1946, but students pressured the then-university president and board of trustees to desegregate the auditorium. This was seven years before the university was desegregated.
“As we witness the movement of extremist ideas from the margins to the mainstream of American society, tonight’s program could not be more timely,” Dr. Knapp said.
Mr. Cohen said there has been a rise in online membership to popular white supremacist websites, which creates a feedback loop to perpetuate hate and false information. He played a video about Dylan Roof, who killed nine African American churchgoers in South Carolina, and demonstrated how he was radicalized online after searching “black on white crime.” This Internet search led him to a series of false statistics and provided a base for his extreme views.
The SPLC has been working with companies like Google to alter its algorithm that often provides people with information they want to see, even if it isn’t true. The Internet can’t be a modern library if it misinforms its users, Mr. Cohen said.
Morris Dees, SPLC founder and chief trial counsel, speaks to a crowd at Lisner Auditorium. He founded the SPLC in Montgomery, Ala. in 1971. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
The SPLC has also been ramping up efforts to protect illegal immigrants facing deportation. Mr. Trump has taken a tough stance on immigration issues and plans to increase deportation efforts. Recently, the SPLC defended Daniella Vargas, a young woman living in Mississippi who came to the United States illegally with her parents as a child.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Ms. Vargas’ father and brother last month. She was accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but her status lapsed in November because she couldn’t afford the renewal fee. She was arrested after a news conference where she shared what happened to her family in a move some viewed as retaliatory. The SPLC filed on her behalf, and she was released.
“There are literally thousands of kids, thousands of people like Daniella Vargas,” he said. “For that reason we are starting a massive project in the Deep South to provide free representation to every immigrant who’s facing deportation.”
Mr. Cohen said arrests like Ms. Vargas’ are only the beginning. He expects that civil rights will be under fire with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, leading the Department of Justice. Mr. Cohen has known Mr. Sessions for more than 30 years and called his record on civil rights “frightening.”
Mr. Dees, who founded the SPLC in 1971 in Montgomery, Ala., said the organization has evolved along with the issues facing the country. When he was facing Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the 1960s, he didn’t think the civil rights crisis could get worse. He believes the problems today are equally significant.
“Nobody that works with us or supports us is going to quit,” he said. “We’re going to stay in the fight no matter how long it takes, no matter how dangerous it gets.”