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Mass shootings cast light on hate-fueled incidents in RI, nation

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The two mass shootings that left at least 31 people dead in Texas and Ohio are again shining a light on how hate affects communities across the country.  

In El Paso, Texas, the accused shooter is suspected of posting a four-page, anti-immigrant manifesto to an online hate-group website called 8chan before opening fire into a crowded Walmart near the Mexico-U.S. border.

Within 14 hours, a second shooter killed at least nine people in Dayton, Ohio, and while the motive isn’t entirely clear yet, the now-dead suspect reportedly kept a list of people he wanted to kill and rape.

The horrific events have become increasingly commonplace in a country where, as of Aug. 5, mass shootings totaled 255 through the first 217 days of the year, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. The deadly events are growing at a faster clip than 2018.

The El Paso shooting, and last month’s attack in Gilroy, California, are being investigated as domestic terrorism, which has become a major investigative priority for law enforcement, according to Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Office.

“We have seen an increase in that type of activity, whether it’s racially motivated violent extremists or anti-authority, anti-government extremists,” Bonavolonta said in an interview with WPRI 12 last month.

Hate crimes are also on the rise in the United States and Rhode Island. The FBI last year reported hate crimes across the country totaled 7,100 during 2017, representing a 17% increase compared to a year earlier.

In Rhode Island, hate crimes increased to 14 in 2018 compared to 11 in 2017, according to the R.I. State Police.

Hate crimes, however, are reported to the FBI on a voluntary basis, leading critics to argue they don’t give a complete picture of what’s really happening in local communities. And like domestic terrorism, hate crimes are narrowly defined, meaning there are other hate-related incidents that don’t result in a criminal charge.

The nonprofit Anti-Defamation League tracks extremist and anti-Semitic incidents around the nation, culling data from various sources, including news and media reports, government documents and victim reports.

In 2017, the nonprofit counted 2,483 incidents across the country. The number grew 23% to 3,045 incidents in 2018, according to its website.

In Rhode Island, the nonprofit detailed 29 such events from 2016 to 2018, including a swastika made out of human feces discovered at a gender-neutral bathroom on the Rhode Island School of Design campus in 2017.

A year later, an alt-right group called Patriot Front distributed flyers with the words, “Keep America American: Report any and all illegal aliens,” according to the group. In January, a separate alt-right group called Identity Evropa distributed flyers with the words, “European roots American greatness,” with stickers of their group logo in East Providence, according to ADL.

The incidents detailed across the country are part of a larger trend ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said is related to recent mass shooting.

“The horrific events that took place in El Paso this weekend exposed something that has been building for years: white supremacy is a national security threat that demands a comprehensive and intense response that rivals the approach applied to countering other radical forms of violent extremism,” he said in a statement.

The group is advocating for the passage of the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2019, which would authorize domestic terrorism offices in federal agencies including the FBI.  

“We have no more time to waste,” Greenblatt said.  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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