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Wyoming sets out to document hate

CASPER — On paper, Wyoming appears to be one of the least discriminatory places in the country.

As the scourge of white nationalism has grown across the Mountain West — accounting for one-tenth of all hate propaganda produced across the nation according to the Anti-Defamation League — Wyoming appears to be an outlier. The state counts just one Southern Poverty Law Center-certified hate group operating within its borders and amassing only a handful of recorded hate crimes over the past three years, leading the nation at a time where hate crimes are on the rise.

But it’s not that Wyoming is simply less racist, more accepting or prone to committing hate crimes at lower rates than other states surrounding it.

Three years ago in the northeastern part of the state, a group called Gillette Against Islam was formed to protest the opening of a mosque there. This winter, the white supremacist group Identity Evropa canvassed the city of Cheyenne with banners and posters promoting its ideology, one of a number of white supremacist groups — who have long coveted Wyoming’s wide open spaces — to rear their heads in the state. And earlier this month, the Sheridan County Republican Women hosted their annual Reagan Day Dinner with noted anti-Muslim activist Tom Trento as keynote speaker.

Trento’s organization, United West, is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“There’s been evidence in the last two years — of what I’ve found — of these groups infiltrating into the state,” said Michael McDaniel, a University of Wyoming graduate student and the creator of Wyoming Hate Watch, a Facebook page dedicated to documenting racist and bigoted statements made by people and groups across the state.

It’s one of the reasons why Wyoming — with the help of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — has been looking to understand the prevalence of hate here and determine whether state and local leaders can do more to fight discrimination. For several months, the commission’s Wyoming Advisory Committee has been serving as the federal agency’s eyes and ears in the Equality State, traveling the state in their investigation of just how prevalent hate actually is in Wyoming.

On Friday, the group’s travels will bring them to the Casper College campus, where they will gather input from a variety of experts from around the region not only on the number of incidents in Wyoming and the reasons they go uninvestigated but also how best to address the issue.

The daylong panel discussion kicks off at 9:30 a.m. in Room 217 of Strausner Hall with a presentation by the Anti-Defamation League’s Scott Levin as well as Dennis and Judy Shepard, the founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Wyoming — the place that arguably started the conversation — often finds itself at the center of the national conversation about hate crime legislation.

And not for the right reasons.

Though home to Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder sparked a national wave of reform on hate crime legislation, the Equality State has notoriously lagged behind when it comes to ensuring protections for all its citizens regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, a distinction often noted in the national media’s coverage of the issue.

Today, Wyoming is one of just four states in the country without hate crime prevention legislation in place and, despite numerous efforts in the state legislature, Wyoming has continuously failed to keep pace with the rest of the country.

“A lot of Wyoming residents don’t think it’s an issue because we just don’t have the minority population,” McDaniel said. “But I think that means that there’s a greater threat to them here, just because there are so few of them, making them a direct target.”

Some have argued Wyoming already has protections in place to protect minorities, with many arguing that federal law — and the state’s existing nondiscrimination statutes — offer ample protections for the state’s marginalized populations.

The problem is, nobody really knows how well — or poorly — Wyoming is actually doing.

With no hate crime laws in place at the state level and more than a dozen police departments across the state not reporting any crime statistics to the state Department of Criminal Investigation last year, many bias-related crimes can slip through the cracks, particularly when many are reluctant to report those crimes in the first place and the data that is gathered is often unreliable.

This, said Nate Martin, director of left-leaning advocacy group Better Wyoming, could be part of the reason the entire state of Wyoming may have had zero recorded hate crimes in 2018: People simply aren’t keeping track.

“You can look in the newspaper and know there was more than that in Wyoming last year,” Martin said.

By bringing the conversation about discrimination into the open, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hopes not only to gather mainstream awareness around the need for additional protections but to also build momentum for tangible action at the state and local levels to stave off hate’s influence here.

“While federal laws have been used to charge more than 200 defendants over the past 10 years in federal court, the vast majority of hate crimes in the U.S. are prosecuted in state courts,” read a March 2019 proposal from the Wyoming Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “Thus, enacting state hate crime laws are necessary for prosecution.”

Some argue that targeted legislation could have positive effects. According to one 2016 study published by the National Institutes of Health, public policies on gay and lesbian rights “affect the incidence of hate crimes based on sexual orientation,” though others have debated whether specific legislation targeted toward hate crimes is actually effective.

To date, however, there hasn’t been much hard data in Wyoming to support the need for such legislation. Much of the hate in Wyoming isn’t immediately visible, McDaniel said, documented not in actions but oftentimes on platforms like social media due to the state’s largely white, largely isolated population.

“There’s a lot of hate speech, but there’s simply not a lot of opportunity to act on it,” he said.

Then there’s the lack of people to hold accountable those who engage in hateful activity, a role traditionally filled by the local news media. In Wyoming, where newspaper staffs are often stretched very thin across a broad coverage area, reporters rarely have time to dig into an official news release from local police to determine whether a crime may or may not have been motivated by hate, for example.

“It’s not far-fetched to think there are crimes happening in communities that, in a more robust media environment, people would be made aware of,” Martin said. “That’s not happening now.”

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