Written by Cari Zahn
“Amid the Blaring Headlines, Routine Reports of Hate-Fueled Violence”
On July 25, 2017, an article with this headline was posted on ProPublica.
On June 28th, there was a package. Within the package, a food container. Within the food container, pork lard. Within the pork lard, a copy of the Quran. Addressed to: the Council on American-Islamic Relations of the Sacramento Valley.
This is routine.
In Colorado, a ninth-grade girl sat at her desk. A ninth-grade girl sat at her desk while being of Mexican descent. She sat at her desk as a Muslim.
Her classmate, clad in the offensive red hat with white words from a white president with red anger, approached her. The classmate, white with an energy that resembled his president’s, said to her, “I told you to pack your bags. You might not be here tomorrow.”
After weeks of enduring jokes from this classmate about bombs, terrorists, and building a wall, she heard this.
This is routine.
The creators of Unwritten knew that what they were writing was important. They knew that they wanted representation in their work: of women, of LGBTQ persons, of introverts, of sexual assault survivors taking a stand, and of those dealing with mental illnesses. And so they represented, knowing their show would be important.
The creators of Unwritten did not know that the story they told would coincide with real life to the level that it did. Episode 106 was released on October 5, 2016. In the fictional episode, victims came forward. A student of main character Elaine’s class described how she was raped by soon-to-be university president Gerald Wagner. It was a disturbing account of what was presumed to be a somewhat common experience on college campuses, if not with faculty and staff, then with peers. Routine.
However, the writers did not stretch their presumptions as far as they could have. In less than 24 hours from its release, Episode 106 grew a brain, then a heart to pump red, hateful blood to its brain. It was alive on our TVs, our cell phone screens, our radios. Everyone was talking about Episode 106 of Unwritten; they just didn’t know it.
11 years ago: a lewd conversation about the sexual harassment and mistreatment of women.
24 hours after the release of 106: the release of that conversation.
Soon after: reality sets in that we could have a president that sees women as sexual objects, and as sexual objects only.
Instantly: reality sets in that the story of Unwritten is more real than its creators could have imagined.
In words, there is power. In power, change can happen. Representation is important, but Unwritten had the power to do more. They had the power to do more with their words.
Suddenly, though, power came from the other side. Those with internalized bigotry and hate now had a justification for acting on those feelings, through our country’s leader, and that’s where the hate crimes come in. That’s where we see them become routine.
ProPublica found 81 incidents of Trump-inspired bullying that happened last school year, including the ninth grade girl from Colorado, and that was just in schools. Hate crimes, if not becoming more frequent and severe, were certainly existing under a brighter light.
And so, power went against power, and season 2 of Unwritten was born.
What is a hate crime?
Representation requires research. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the definition is formulaic. Traditional crime + bias = hate crime.
Murder of a black person + racial motivation = hate crime
Vandalism of LGBTQ center + hatred of different gender and sexual identities = hate crime
Arson + direction toward a disabled person because of their disability = hate crime
Unfortunately, the traditional crime element is important, because, without it, the hatred is protected under the first amendment. However, when a crime is committed to display or intensify hateful speech, it is a federal crime. The FBI considers hate crimes to be the highest priority of their Civil Rights program, because of the threat of terrorism. Hate breeds terrorism.
Sounds simple enough. Plug in your variables. Out pops a hate crime. Federal prosecution.
I’m sure readers already know that it’s not that simple, even if the reason why isn’t clear.
First, there is very little data collected on hate crimes. Documentation of crimes is unreliable; therefore, there are no accurate numbers to prove that this is a problem. The FBI is concerned about hate crimes; however, incidences of bullying and harassment are not documented by the government. While the FBI is required to document these crimes, local-level governments are not, so the translation between the two is fuzzy, and as a result, the FBI’s data is not accurate.
Some even argue that hate shouldn’t be a crime classification because it simply gives criminals a platform for their hateful opinions. Though respect for freedom of speech must be considered, many are afraid that hate crime classifications criminalize beliefs, shifting focus from the crime itself. This pattern of thinking is toxic because it does not give proper light to targeted groups and contributes to the documentation problem.
What is being done?
Identifying the problem is the first step toward a solution. ProPublica, it seems, is the second.
With their Documenting Hate project, ProPublica is working to create a database of hate crimes and hate-related bullying and harassment. According to their website, data is compiled with the help of law enforcement, community groups, local jurisdictions, news reports, search trends, social media, and other non-profit organizations. Volunteers, then, enrich the database by following up on stories and authenticating reports of crime.
With this database, the conversation can continue. In some places, the conversation can start. An understanding of the bias that exists in these crimes can result, and, victims can feel validation through the recognition of their pain.
What can you do?
Work toward creating new routines. If hate crimes are routine, we should be prepared to break them. Science says it takes 21 days to break a habit. Science says, as humans, we all come from the same species. Science does not provide evidence that validates hate.
ProPublica may have a jump start toward a solution, but as individuals, there are steps we can take to make a difference. Change requires participation.
If you or someone you know is the victim of a hate crime or hate-related incident, add to the database here.
As a reporter, editor, or simply a volunteer, you can sign up to receive data and story leads from ProPublica to follow up on and report. In addition, ProPublica will promote the articles you write as a result.
Follow the Documenting Hate project on Twitter and Facebook to stay in the know.
For the sake of commiseration and fictional education, stay tuned for Season 2 of Unwritten to be released this fall.
In the words of Elaine Harper in episode 106, “What use is a silent story? Quiet doesn’t solve anything. There are entire histories that are unwritten.”
Let’s write those histories.