Snyder urged to condemn ‘hate’ speech in Kalkaska

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A coalition of diversity, civil rights and faith groups are urging Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to condemn comments from a Kalkaska village official who has refused to apologize for sharing Facebook posts denouncing Islam and calling for the killing of “every last Muslim.”

“Failure to do so is equivalent to silence,” the groups said Wednesday in a letter to the Republican governor. “Your silence implies something is wrong with Muslims and other minority groups, leading to possible internalization of this hate and fanning the flames of hatred already ablaze in our state.”

Village President Jeff Sieting’s remarks about Muslims, blacks and transgender people have inflamed residents in and outside of Kalkaska. Controversy has been brewing for weeks in the small northern Michigan village, dividing residents.

Snyder issued a “statement on unity” Monday in the wake of weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups clashed with counter-protesters. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been charged with ramming his car into a group of counter-protesters and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

"Hate speech and violence are not welcome in Michigan — it’s not representative of who Michiganders truly are or of the future we want to build for our children,” Snyder said.

Asked about Sieting’s controversial posts and comments, Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton pointed to the governor’s earlier statement, saying it “condemns all speech of this nature.”

But a letter spearheaded by Steve Spreitzer, president and CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, asks Snyder to go further and specifically condemn Sieting’s comments, saying communities around the country are “reeling” after seeing white supremacist marches and Nazi salutes last weekend in Virginia.

It was co-signed by leaders with the Michigan Region of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, the Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit, the Michigan State Conference NAACP and the ACLU of Michigan.

“This is a moment that calls upon all of us to exercise moral leadership,” they said in the letter to Snyder. “More is required from you, the governor of this state. We ask that you condemn those specific remarks and not stand silent in the face of violence and threats to our communities.”

Reached for comment Wednesday, Sieting said he continues to stand by his “First Amendment freedom” and is not sure if his social media activity should be called hate speech, but he acknowledged the Muslim posts he shared came from a “very barbaric writing.”

“I’m not really guessing at what Gov. Snyder’s going to have to say,” Sieting said, noting he read Snyder’s recent call for unity. “I don’t imagine he’s going to praise me for it, you know what I mean?”

In his own social media posts, Sieting has described transgender people as “sick twisted mental patients” and, referring to Black Lives Matter, said it was time to “thin the herd.”

He didn’t personally author the words in the controversial Muslim posts that first sparked controversy but said he shared information from a source he thought “had some really good historical significance in it.”

“I know there are wonderful individuals out there who practice the Muslim religion — it would be foolish to think there are not — but as I’ve said before, how do you know one from another in this day and age?” Sieting said.

His comments and refusal to back down have garnered national attention. As The Detroit News recently reported, Vanguard America, a white nationalist group, posted fliers on a downtown hotel Sieting owns, including one that read, “Stop the Islamization of America.”

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has been “monitoring the situation in Kalkaska” and “been in touch with local law enforcement, community groups and individuals,” spokeswoman Vicki Levengood said Wednesday.

“We will continue to work with local organizations in a coordinated effort to make sure Kalkaska remains a welcoming and tolerant community.”

Other organizations, including the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have called for state and national leaders to repudiate what Sieting posted.

A local group called Kalkaska for Peace recently started an online petition calling for Snyder to publicly denounce Sieting’s “hate speech,” arguing that Michigan’s diversity makes it “stronger and more competitive.” As of Wednesday evening, 442 people had signed the online petition.

Sieting said his critics also are circulating recall petitions seeking to drive him out of office, but he hasn’t heard much about the effort lately so suspects they may be having difficulty collecting enough signatures.

“I’m here by the will of the people, and if the will of the people deems I need to go, then I’m not going to kick and scream,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Staff Writer Francis X. Donnelly contributed.