CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was doing a press conference in the summer of 2015 when someone passed him a note and he learned about the terror attack on his city. The message was sparse. Active shooter. Officer down.
On July 12, 2015, a man inspired by the Islamic State shot at a recruiting center in a strip mall, then at a U.S. Naval Reserve Center. Five service members died.
“I thought to myself as that incident unfolded, ‘How do we heal a city that has seen this kind of hateful act shatter the peace of who we thought we were?’” Berke told an audience Thursday, many of whom wore pins with the word HATE scratched through with a swath of red.
“And then over the course of the next few days and weeks and months, I found the answer to that,” Berke continued. “We came to a different place that saw amazing acts of strength and courage and healing that changed the way I view our city.”
As Berke told it, it happened at a vigil at Olivet Baptist Church days after the attack. A leader of the small Muslim community in the city got up. It was the last night of Ramadan, the leader said, a night observed with prayers at the mosque.
“But tonight we are Chattanoogans first,” Berke recalled him saying as other Muslims around the room stood.
Berke said the city’s response to the attack attracted international attention. That response, combined with the rising rate of hate crimes, Berke said, led him to found the Council Against Hate, which he announced about a year ago.
On Thursday, in a coffee shop that boasted chandeliers and a bar with India Pale Ales on tap, the City Council officially launched its effort to combat extremism at the local level. It has a threefold goal of reducing the hate that led to the 2015 attack, building resiliency if something happens. and improving the quality of lives for residents, Berke said before the event.
According to a 17-page report released by the council’s steering committee, the city plans to tap its police force, examine policies, train teachers and students, look to the faith community and examine the role of media in a multifront approach to foster tolerance and prevent hate crimes.
The FBI reported a 17% increase in reported hate crimes from 2016 to 2017, the most recently available data.
While other cities have made similar efforts, some people who have made their careers tackling extremism say that Chattanooga serves as a model for other cities attempting to combat extremism.
Chattanooga’s Council Against Hate, said Mike Singer, a former mayor of Charlottesville, is “a paradigm example of what communities around the country could start to do in this area because it’s so thoughtfully conceived.”
Singer led Charlottesville during the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, which he described as “the largest assembly of white nationalists in a generation” while speaking at Chattanooga’s launch of its own council.
The rally turned deadly when a man rammed a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer.
Singer, who sits on the Charlottesville City Council, started the Communities Overcoming Extremism: The After Charlottesville Project, to build consensus and discover best practices in dealing with incidents such as a white nationalist rally.
The project is backed by a diverse range of groups, from the Anti-Defamation League, to the Center for American Progress to the Charles Koch Institute. Berke sits on the project’s advisory board.
“The nature of extremism is it changes rapidly and is kind of like a virus,” Singer told Courthouse News. “So you need a fully equipped immune system and a lot of tools to address it that are creative and that together create the resilience that you need.”
Chattanooga is trying to use both soft and hard strategies to attack the issue. For instance, the council’s steering committee suggested the city conduct a survey to measure bias and discrimination — not just events that rise to the level of hate crime.
Another suggestion included asking the CEOs of local companies — which include Unum Group insurance — to commit to working to remove hate from their workplaces. And the steering committee suggested holding informational sessions about social media and news consumption.
Singer said local government is most effective at combating extremism because it’s “closer to the ground” in terms of law enforcement investigations, for example.
“The most dynamic front for governance today is cities, for many reasons,” Singer said in an interview. “The dysfunction of Congress and the polarization of statehouses have meant that a lot of energy and innovation has shifted to the local level: cities and counties.”
Chattanooga is not alone in its efforts to tackle extremism. After the Charlottesville rally, more than 325 mayors signed the Anti-Defamation League’s Mayors’ Compact to Combat Hate, Extremism and Bigotry, according to Ethan Ashley, state and local advocacy director for the ADL.
In November 2018, civic leaders in Berkeley, California and more than a dozen cities and counties in the Bay Area held a United Against Hate Week.
“All of these cities, and their city leaders, are thinking about proactive ways to showcase to their citizenry that hate, bigotry and discrimination is not tolerated and we’re going to work and be innovative and creative and proactive about fighting it,” Ashley told Courthouse News.
Charleston, South Carolina passed a hate crime ordinance in November because the state — one of five in the nation — does not have a hate crime law on its books, according to Shelley Rose, deputy regional director for ADL in the greater Atlanta area.
Rose spoke to the Chattanooga council as it held its first meeting in mid-October to explain the state of extremism in the area.
Rose is working in Georgia — which also does not have a hate crime law — to persuade cities around Atlanta to pass their own hate crime ordinances.
What Chattanooga started, Rose said, is “the kind of thing we’d love to see more cities do.”
In 2017, the Chattanooga Police Department reported to the FBI that four hate crimes occurred in the city — three apparently motivated by race and one by sexual orientation. The Chattanooga State Community College also reported one suspected hate crime motivated by race. And the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office told the FBI three suspected hate crimes occurred in its jurisdiction in 2017.
The year before, Chattanooga reported three hate crimes to the FBI while the sheriff’s office reported 10.
In October 2016, according to incident reports obtained through a records request from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, a student at Ooltewah High School called three black students a racial slur and tied a string into a small noose.
A sheriff’s officer responded to a call in March 2016 after the Old Rugged Cross Baptist Church discovered sayings “Love Satan” and “666” spray-painted on the outside of its building.
Alison Lebovitz, co-chair of the Council Against Hate, sees the council’s effort as one against “indifference and inaction.”
The goal of the Council Against Hate goes beyond responding to hate crimes in Chattanooga, Lebovitz said. It’s to change the way the community speaks about and regards marginalized groups.
“We feel like once a hate crime has been perpetrated, we’re too late,” Lebovitz said.