When is a Hate Crime Not a Hate Crime?

by Rebecca Bynum (March 2011)

Tennesseans may remember the resulting hysteria when a defaced Koran was foundon a doorstep by a Somali Muslim on June 24th, 2005 in Nashville. The entire Muslim community was up in arms and complained vehemently that the police didn’t respond quickly enough, though what they could have done under the circumstances is unclear. Police promptly investigated the incident specifically as a hate crime and consulted the FBI. “A suspect could be charged with misdemeanor desecration of a venerated object or civil rights intimidation, which can be a felony or misdemeanor charge,” explained Metro police Capt. Mike Hagar. The police department also apologized to the Muslim community for their tardy response time, even though at the time of the call, police were dealing with several actual emergencies. And when the Somali al Farooq mosque on Fourth Avenue was vandalized Feb 10th, 2010, the FBI was called in and all forces immediately investigated the crude graffiti vandalism “as a hate crime.” So many volunteers arrived to help wash off the paint, most had to be turned away.

You may also remember the incident in Murfreesboro, Tennessee where some excavation equipment used by a company grading the property of a proposed mosque was set ablaze. Without any indication whatsoever that it had anything to do with local objections to the mosque, the FBI was immediately called in and along with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives offered a $20,000 reward for information. The term “hate crime” was liberally invoked by the media even though without knowing the motive, the FBI could not confirm it was a hate crime at all. Not only that, but several representatives of the US Justice Department flew in to make certain local Muslims were protected and their new, oversized mosque would be built despite objections from the community.

Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, spent a full day making house calls in Middle Tennessee, assuring Muslim leaders — including the imams of the Murfreesboro mosque and the Islamic Center of Nashville — that his office has their back if it turns out that opponents aren't as interested in zoning esoterica as they are in sidelining the practice of Islam in Murfreesboro.

"Basically, what we're being told is that if there's any civil violation of the rights of the Muslim community here, they'll step in," says Abdou Kattih, vice president of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, who also met with government officials.

On October 18, 2010 the US Justice Department also filed a brief with the court refuting the argument (admittedly poorly made) that Islam should not be considered a religion and insisted that mosques be treated exactly like churches in the lawsuit brought by local residents against the Planning Commission.

Contrast all this solicitous concern with what happened to Mr. Jeffrey C. Brown in late July 2008. On that day, like every other work day, he drove past the Somali al Farooq mosque on Fourth Avenue in Nashville. There he saw a man wondering out into the street. Mr. Brown, having seen news reports about Somalis having trouble crossing the street in front of the mosque, immediately slowed to a stop. A train happened to be passing on the railroad track behind him blocking traffic and so Mr. Brown found himself alone in his immobile pickup. The Somali man, 22 year old Abdi Suleiman Shakur, continued walking slowly past the front of Mr. Brown’s truck when he saw the large (1ft x 2ft) American flag magnet on the hood. At the sight of the flag, Shakur lunged at the vehicle and began beating on the hood, chanting and praising Allah as he did so. Then he grew even more violent and pulled the flag magnet from the hood and tore it in pieces, spitting on it and cursing. At this point, Mr. Brown dialed 911 and with the 911 operator on the line, got out of his truck to confront Shakur.

Brown then noticed about 20 or 30 other young Somali Muslims gathering around laughing and taking pictures with their cell phones. Fearing he was being set up, he retreated into his truck to await police. With that, Shakur grew even more threatening, still chanting praise Allah and taunting, “I work for Bin Laden. I take you down! Where is your help?”

Then Shakur reaching inside Mr. Brown’s truck and grabbed a small American flag from the passenger side visor and ripped it into pieces, spit on it, and crushed it into the ground with his foot. Now his threatening words escalated still further. While continuing to praise Allah, he shouted, “I take you down! You will burn! I teach you Jihad is coming! Where is your help?” He also brandished a pamphlet with flames and the word “Jihad” on the cover. Mr. Brown managed to retrieve the pamphlet, after Shakur stuck it into a street sign, and turned it over to police when they finally arrived some 20 harrowing minutes later. This evidence, which would have directly implicated the mosque for incitement, later disappeared.

The arrival of the police was the beginning of an odyssey that would leave Jeff Brown both embittered and mistrustful of Nashville police, the Tennessee justice system, and the media.

The first officer on the scene (a woman) began to take Mr. Brown’s statement and seemed to agree with Mr. Brown that this incident should be classified as a hate crime due to the fact that Shakur threatened him for no other reason than his self-identification as an American. Shakur targeted and destroyed the symbol of America, our venerated flag (see the venerated object clause cited above), while threatening an American citizen with violent death: “You will burn! I teach you Jihad!” A more open display of hatred for America and Americans would be hard to imagine. Soon, however, a senior officer (male) approached and took charge. He laughed at the idea this was a hate crime and indicated he knew Shakur and they had had dealings with him in the past. “He just needs his medication,” he patronizingly explained. That would become the official line from then on – the man is crazy and therefore not responsible for his words and actions. He just needs help. No hate crime and certainly no jihad threat here folks. Nothing to discuss.

Shakur was handcuffed and taken by police “for evaluation” but was not arrested as Mr. Brown expected after having been the victim of assault and vandalism at the very least. After Mr. Brown complained to police that he wished to press charges and wanted the man arrested, Sgt. Brooks Harris helped him to fill out the necessary paperwork, but specifically requested that Brown not contact the media because, “We don’t want anyone to retaliate or do anything stupid,” meaning, I suppose, there could possibly be some ill feelings directed toward our burgeoning Somali Muslim community (over 5,000 strong out of a total Muslim population of 25,000 in the Metro Nashville area) if this story got out. How many such stories are being suppressed? Later, Sgt. Brooks produced a pamphlet with children and balloons on the cover and asked Brown if that was the pamphlet Shakur had brandished.

In 2009, Sgt. Brooks was the subject of a complaint filed by David Gaubatz after his undercover investigation of the al Farooq mosque and adjoining Koran school produced evidence of child abuse – beatings during class and the underage marriage of girls. Gaubatz alleged that his report went completely uninvestigated. Sgt. Brooks, on the other hand, believed he had good cooperation from the mosque leadership and did not want to upset that relationship. Gaubatz also claimed radical jihad materials like the pamphlet described by Mr. Brown were openly displayed at the mosque. When Brooks later investigated, he found they were not there.

When Mr. Brown decided to contact the media regardless of Sgt. Brooks’ admonition, WKRN, Nashville’s ABC affiliate, offered to do a broadcast showing reconciliation between Brown and the imam of the al Farooq mosque and stressed that they didn’t want to dwell on the incident itself. Brown declined. He just wanted his story told. Gail Kerr at The Tennessean also turned him down claiming Brown hadn’t given her enough information, though he gave her the same information you’re reading here. Another reporter called back, but kept asking what Brown had done to provoke the incident. Brown was insulted and dropped the matter. Neither the local CBS or NBC affiliates bothered to return Mr. Brown’s phone calls.

Mr. Shakur was finally arrested on August 5, 2008 and charged with obstructing passage, misdemeanor vandalism and misdemeanor assault. He spent 6 days and 13 hours in jail before his hearing on August 12. The record shows he had had two previous run ins with the law in Nashville: once for reckless driving/DUI and another for domestic violence and assault.

When the case came to court, Brown was forced to take the day off from work to be present at the hearing. Finally, after waiting in the courtroom from morning until afternoon for the case to be heard, a female representative from the mental health system kindly informed Brown that Shakur was now receiving his medication and they would make sure he got "all the help he needed." Mr. Brown was not relieved. The Assistant District Attorney General, Jennifer L. Smith, shrugged off Brown’s plea to prosecute as a hate crime and spoke to him for less than a minute in total.

In the end, Mr. Shakur was convicted of simple assault and simple vandalism and received a suspended sentence of 11 months, 29 days on condition that he enroll in an anger management course. When Mr. Brown obtained a copy of the arrest record, several words were blacked out, notably, “Jihad pamphlet,” “Allah great” and “bin Laden.” One can only assume this was done to protect Shakur.

Jeff Brown, bitter and disillusioned, is still haunted by the words, “Where is your help?”

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