Civil Rights agency flooded with harassment calls

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Civil Rights says it has been inundated with phone calls about potential ethnic-, religious- or racially motivated harassment since Donald Trump’s election Tuesday.

“Our phone is ringing off the line,” said Agustin Arbulu, Civil Rights Department director. He said the department doesn’t have data on the uptick in people contacting the department but it hopes to by Friday.

The surge in people trying to reach the state department charged with fighting discrimination comes as at least 200 instances of harassment nationwide were reported in the days following Trump’s election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which gathered information from news reports, social media and submissions to the center’s website. The law center said every incident could not be immediately independently verified..

Those harassment cases could be anything from “anti-Black to anti-woman to anti-LGBT incidents,” according to the center.

While there are no Michigan statistics from the Civil Rights Department, local media have reported a number of alleged harassment incidents that could be determined to be hate- or ethnically motivated after Trump’s election.

A man over the weekend threatened to set a University of Michigan student on fire in downtown Ann Arbor if she did not remove her hijab. She complied and the man fled the scene. Ann Arbor police Sgt. Patrick Maguire said last week the department is “investigating it actively … and soliciting information from anyone who may have witnessed anything.” The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for the incident to be investigated as a hate crime.

A day after Trump was elected president a group of Royal Oak middle school students enthusiastically chanted “Build that wall” — one of Trump’s campaign slogans about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants — to the dismay of at least one Hispanic student in the room.

Seventh-grader Josie Ramon, a 12-year-old, captured the incident on video with her cell phone, which was widely shared on Facebook and has received more than 5 million views.

Royal Oak Schools superintendent Shawn Lewis-Lakin said in a statement that school officials “addressed this incident when it occurred” and are “working with our students to help them understand the impact of their words and actions on others in their school community.”

In Traverse City, a police officer was suspended for driving his pickup truck adorned with a Confederate flag in the rear bed of the truck to an anti-Trump protest, where he drank a beer, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Traverse City police Chief Jeff O’Brien said the behavior was intimidating and not a reflection of the Police Department’s mission, the newspaper said.

Some fear these incidents may be evidence that the president-elect’s hardline campaign rhetoric on immigration and comments about temporarily banning Muslims has emboldened racists and white nationalists.

The Civil Rights department does not handle criminal matters. But its director said it will do everything in its power to investigate harassment and discrimination complaints.

He cautioned that some of the complaints have been about the same incidents and said it’s too early to tell whether there has been an increasing number of alleged harassment cases.

“Let me just say this … if there is physical violence, there’s bullying, there’s harassment, there’s ethnic intimidation … and they file a complaint, we will take it,” Arbulu said. “We take it very seriously. That kind of behavior is not something that is tolerated in our system.”

He continued, “We won’t tolerate any of those kinds of behaviors. They have to be fought.”

The department only classifies “complaints” as those which go through a formal, bureaucratic process that can take an unkown amount of time, according to department spokeswoman Vicki Levengood.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has said the social justice organization is monitoring the reported incidents of harassment and was still determining how it would address them.