Words by Kokayi Nosakhere
His reaction was exaggerated; choosing to play to the crowd gathered to document their experience with hatred in Southern Oregon. Keith Michael Erickson, a self-identified National Socialist, turned to me, the only Black person in the room, whom he purposely chose to sit behind, and said, “Wow! Talk about hate! Did you see that?” His eyes were big and shock played across his face.
I had. A rotund Jewish-looking grandfather, obviously triggered by someone who publicly denies six million of his tribal members were killed by World War II-Germany, approached Erickson and his friend, Greg, with two short sentences.
“I hate you. You are a Nazi!”
Erickson shuffled through his papers and produced a handmade sign from a quarter sheet of 8 by 11 xerox copy paper. The message read: Nazi is the new nigger. The racial slur was written in capital letters, in contrast to the rest of the words.
“Perhaps your hate towards me is because of your Jewish heritage?” Erickson retorted. “Calling me a nazi is label lynching.”
Organizers of the event moved towards the Jewish man, who choose to distance himself from Erickson. The National Socialists mumbled among themselves words of encouragement, asking how hate can measure into crime; a crime is an act, not an emotion, Greg argued.
What Exactly Is a Hate Crime
The Rural Organizing Project circulated an email on Friday, January 11, detailing the rapid response the Cave Junction community made to a questionable hate crime earlier this month.
“On Saturday morning, January 5th, 2019, the community of Cave Junction woke up to discover “KKK” had been spray painted in bright red pain all over their town. Vehicles, homes, and businesses were covered, and weapons wrapped in a Don’t Tread On Me flag were found nearby, sparking fear and outrage. Neighbors immediately joined together to build a stronger community, to paint over white supremacist symbols, and to demonstrate loud and clear: hate has no place in Cave Junction!
As soon as folks saw the spraypainting, several community members reached out to homes and businesses, offering details of what happened and help covering up the symbols. People gathered donations on social media and in town to pay for paint. Shortly after, teams of volunteers got to work painting!
When a community is shaken by brazen acts of white supremacy, we demonstrate our power together through our response, no matter how simple it may seem. Folks in Cave Junction joined together to show that they are a community of love who will show up when their neighbors are targeted with hate. City leadership also delivered an immediate and powerful response in solidarity with the community, denouncing the hateful message and taking community concerns seriously. Together, community members and elected officials responded in a unified voice to declare that hate has no place in Cave Junction. Let us be in the light!”
The email cited a local news source, this is about as grassroots as news gets in America. Despite the letters KKK appearing on several other structures in the immediate area, Cave Junction police do not classify the incident as a hate crime. Perhaps vandalism? The suspect is in custody, yet basic information, like his name and age, remain unreleased.
Thankfully, the State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum understands the Oregonian mind. She noted the lack of a uniform reporting system for hate crimes. She and several taskforce members occupied the Medford Library Community room, filling it with almost one hundred citizens on Wednesday, January 9.
In her opening statement, Rosenblum rattled off a battery of statistics meant to justify the reason for the task force she is leading. According to the FBI, there were 104 hate crimes reported to them in 2016 and 146 reported in 2017.
It is not a question of whether hate crimes are happening, the question is how to effectively address them. Or, what actually counts as a hate crime and deserves a special response.
Hate crimes in Oregon are defined as: “Under Oregon Law, a hate crime is offensive physical contact, threatening or inflicting physical injury, threatening or causing property of damage towards a person or persons because perception of their race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity or national origin. These also include the desecration of places of worship or religious objects, and may also include a family member, for instance threats against a family member who comes out as LGBTQ.” [Source: Basic Rights Oregon]
The current emphasis is on imminent threat to self, not a threat or violation of property. The crime is against the person. Under that definition, neither Cave Junction or the verbal exchange between Erickson and the Jewish grandfather are considered hate crimes.
The Lonely Man Speaks
Event organizers turned their cellphones on and began recording Erickson when he picked up the microphone and addressed the task force panel. They were prepared for him. He began by defining himself as a national socialist and inviting anyone in the room to sit down and discuss what a national socialist is. Then, he said, “Nazi is the new nigger.”
Erickson affirmed the second amendment rights of a Jewish queer woman, who had testified earlier, to purchase a gun for self-defense and a feeling of protection. The statement landed as a veiled threat.
He admitted to showing up to a Jewish synagogue last month, as Rabbi Zaslow taught on the rise of anti-semitism in the local area and nationwide. To demonstrate how serious the threat is, armed guards were hired for the December 13 meeting. They were needed to prevent Erickson from entering the packed meeting. February two years ago a utility box near the synagogue was defaced with the words: Anne Frank Oven. It sent a message to the community.
Erickson testified he felt unfairly targeted by the presentation. It had his face displayed in a slideshow. He complained about being presented in the local newspapers as a nazi, repeating the racial slur two more times.
Standing in the back of the room, in direct eye sight of Erickson, I said loud enough for everyone in the room to digest, “How many times you going to use that word, man?”
The event organizers stepped forward, with their cameras focused on Erickson. He first looked at the cellphone cameras and then turned to look at me.
Erickson returned to speaking into the microphone stating that due to the atmosphere in the Rogue Valley towards him and the “historical understandings” that he shares in the community, he doesn’t feel safe. His efforts to reach out and have civil discussions keep falling on deaf ears. He then left the microphone and was followed by his friend, Greg.
Greg did not contribute anything to Erickson’s argument, other to state publicly that hate is an emotion and cannot be legally regulated.
Do Not Punch the Nazis
The meeting ended with Virginia Camperos, Unite Oregon’s regional field director, reiterating the mission of Unite Oregon and affirming that White persons are not the recipients of racial animus in Oregon.
The national socialists protested this claim, stating that it is racist to believe White persons cannot be discriminated against.
On Facebook, in response to the Mail Tribune article detailing the interaction, several persons echoed the popular saying, “Punch a Nazi.” I am a strong believer in non-violent responses towards White Nationalism.
Lile the personalities promoted on the national level, Erickson leverages the number of businesses and locations he is barred from as social capital in white nationalist spaces. On social media he vents his frustration.
Julie Gillis, wrote: “Those two men wanted everyone to get upset and to attack them and so I think there needs to be new active ways to intervene that are surprising interventions. I cannot tell anyone not to ‘punch a Nazi’ and clearly there are instances where physical interventions are needed.
I’m of two minds here, and one is that it would feel very satisfying to punch a Nazi, I think. But, the other is that we train de escalation teams not to support the Nazi, but to keep the rest of the group safe. To literally be aware of the situation and try to reduce harm to the community. In some cases, that means keeping the person in question engaged – as one of our de-escalators did for about an hour, so that he wouldn’t talk to or confront any of the people who testified.
She didn’t placate him, in fact she did challenge his beliefs, but she didn’t engage physically with him. She kept him occupied so that the task force could talk to the people there. She engaged in tremendous emotional labor to keep him and the other man from engaging the community.
That’s just my observation as someone on the de-escalation team. I would try to practice non-violence as much as possible and insert myself into a fray only to keep others safe.
I’m aware I’m saying this from a place of privilege, but I see that it can be easy to take righteous anger into a charged experience which can affect an entire group or community. It’s in reaction to something very toxic and dangerous-the hate speech. And ignoring it is not the answer. And driving someone to the next town is not the answer. I am interested and engaged in finding those other strategies and tactics to protect community, to protect those oppressed, and to avoid violence whenever I can. “