Countering Hate Speech In Wyoming Up To Individuals, Not Police
The Mountain West may not be thought of as a haven for white supremacy but the Anti-Defamation League recently found that the region is responsible for ten percent of all white supremacy propaganda. That's even though there's just five percent of the nation's population here.
Scroll through the comments below any political news story and you're likely to find more than a few vicious or mean-spirited posts. Most people ignore these comments, but not Michael McDaniel. It was actually the foothold racism and other bigotry have in Wyoming that inspired him to begin documenting the hate-filled those kinds of comments online and in his community. He spends a little time every day digging into the worst of these online opinions. He says it's his way of fighting the hate, racism, and Nazis in his community.
One afternoon in mid-August, McDaniel checked his Facebook to find that someone has sent him a screenshot. The image captured an exchange between two Wyomingites in a comments section, where one party left an aggressive comment making casual use of a racial slur.
So, McDaniel searched for that person's personal page
"If people leave their facebook pages relatively open, you can get a sense of who they are as a person," he said.
McDaniel scrolled through the commenter's personal profile and learned that the commenter was a recent graduate of Sheridan High School, and that he frequently posted negatively about women.
"But this is the one that really kind of got me," he said, coming to a particularly graphic comment.
The comment read, "You know it's kinda ridiculous that there be girls that their vaginas have more confirmed kills than my future AR-15."
It's comments like these that led McDaniel to launch his own Facebook page, Wyoming Hate Watch. There, he shares the results of his investigations into the people behind these bigoted or hateful Facebook comments.
"I just want the community to be aware that these people are out there," McDaniel said. "You know, if you are a target minority population, I'm sure it would be to your benefit to know that there are people out there in your community that hate you specifically because of your race or religion."
McDaniel has been running Wyoming Hate Watch for just a few weeks now, but it's already attracted more than 400 followers.
While the page is new, hate and bigotry in the Equality State are not. In 1885, 28 Chinese coal miners were killed in the Rock Springs Massacre. And in 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered for his sexual orientation.
More recently, the white nationalist group Identity Evropa - now called the American Identity Movement - put up flyers at the University of Wyoming and around the state.
In 2018, the Laramie Police Department arrested someone who spray-painted "Jesus sucks" on the walls of a Catholic church. The young man was charged with four counts of property destruction and one count of littering.
Laramie police chief Dale Stalder said bias-motivated crimes are reported to the state and the FBI, but are treated no differently in the state's courts.
"Whatever that criminal behavior is, there are not enhancements if it's bias-motivated," he said. "In some states, you have that bias enhancement, but not in Wyoming."
Under state law, vandalism is just vandalism, even if it's in a church, and homicide is just homicide, even if it's motivated by bigotry.
Last year, someone replaced the American flag in Laramie's Washington Park with the flag of Nazi Germany. The stars and stripes were folded and left nearby so there was no charge of theft. And the raising of the Nazi flag was not, in itself, illegal.
Nor was the burning of a Koran during a rally in Gillette in 2016.
Lt. Chuck Deaton was monitoring the scene that day with other officers from the Gillette Police Department.
"It was actually a very boring day," he said. "What I remember the most from it was me standing out in the sun, getting my bald head sunburned."
Deaton said most incidents like this happen without event, but law enforcement has to plan for every possible outcome.
"Our job here is to keep the community safe and so you have to stay on top of things like that," Deaton said. "Certainly when we get information about threats, things like that, we certainly investigate them as far as we can - and of course take extra steps as well to ensure the safety of the public.
Counter-protesters organized before the rally and showed up to voice their disapproval. Tanya Krummreich was one of those protesters.
"I think it's just really challenging for law enforcement, because until laws are broken, there's not a whole lot they can do," she said.
Krummreich is a member of the group Gillette Against Hate, which helped organize the counterprotest at the Koran burning rally.
"I personally think there are limits to free speech and we should be able to recognize those limits," she said. "But it's such a gray area that law enforcement really has their hands tied, I think."
Krummreich said that's why it's important to show up and counter hate speech.
"I really believe that the most important thing is: It's really hard to hate up close," she said. "And so, if we can really get people communicating and talking, it can't do anything but help,"
Michael McDaniel's posts on Wyoming Hate Watch often highlight examples of hate speech, racism, and prejudice that others would brush off. But he said the page is even more important in the wake of racially-motivated shootings in El Paso and other places.
"There are still a lot of people out there who, you know, are not on one side or the other and they think this is not going to happen here, or that we don't have these types of people in our community," he said. "You've got to be aware when these people are making these statements, you know, because it could happen anywhere."
McDaniel added it would be nice if his page could change some people's minds, but he isn't holding out hope. For now, he just keeps posting.