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Colorado’s New Era of Ill Will

Documenting the rise in hate crimes and biased behavior in Colorado—and what's being done about it

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On July 22, 2018, I narrowly escaped a bombing at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. I’d just spent about two weeks reporting a story for this magazine, traversing a country riven by civil strife and foreign militaries. I was tired and sweaty, and everything I carried was covered in a fine layer of Afghan dirt. All I wanted was to go home.

Our plane sat, delayed, on the tarmac while long-exiled First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum’s aircraft arrived. Dostum had been accused of multiple atrocities, and his pending return had inspired protests in the capital earlier that day. As Dostum exited the airport, we were cleared to taxi, and at approximately 5 p.m., Emirates flight 641 took off for Dubai. Moments later, an Islamic State suicide bomber protesting Dostum’s reappearance detonated his vest. By the time I landed in the United Arab Emirates, at least 20 people were dead. Had I taken a later flight, I might have been one of them; the bomb went off precisely where I had passed shortly before. I was shaken but not surprised. After all, this was Afghanistan, a country that had been swirling with unchecked animosity for decades.

Many hours later, I arrived safely in the United States, only to learn that a gunman had killed two people in Toronto and injured another 13 that same day. Three months later, 11 people inside a Pittsburgh synagogue were shot dead. Then came the yoga studio shooting murders in Tallahassee. Then, this summer, El Paso. When a Boulder man posted an online guide to hunting Jews and Muslims recently, I knew I’d been kidding myself. Hate doesn’t just live in Kabul. It lives here, in my home, too.

Identifying hate would be easier if it always wore a suicide vest. Or a white hood. Or a swastika. It doesn’t. Sometimes hate wears a gray sweatshirt and jeans and walks into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, with a .45-caliber handgun. Other times it dresses up as a digital dating profile, lures in Texas men, then beats them. More often, though, hate wears a suit and a sidelong glance and tells an off-color joke. It wraps itself up in 280 characters, thousands of times a day, every day. Sometimes it hides behind the presidential seal.

In Colorado, discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry—all euphemisms for hate—have been on the rise. During the past few years, the number of hate groups and bias-motivated crimes and incidents all have increased—in some cases dramatically. Hate crimes jumped 45 percent* between 2017 and 2018, for example. That’s in part because 2017 was a relatively quiet year. Still, 139 hate crimes in any 12 months is concerning. “What has happened in the last roughly three years,” says Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a Denver organization that supports the LGBTQ community, “has challenged all of us who work in this field to confront the fact that we have not made the kind of progress we thought we had.”

Not that Colorado has ever been perfect. Race riots in Denver’s Chinatown (now LoDo) in 1880 left one man dead and many seriously injured and contributed to a federal ban on Chinese immigrants. Four decades after that, Denver elected a senior member of the Ku Klux Klan as mayor. Multiple times. Then, in 1984, Denver talk radio host Alan Berg, who was Jewish, was killed outside his home by members of white nationalist group the Order. And in 1992, Colorado earned the nickname the “Hate State” when it passed Amendment 2, which prevented the creation of any laws by which gay, lesbian, or bisexual people would be protected from discrimination or treated as a protected class.

But Colorado’s unsavory past doesn’t explain this most recent boost in bigotry. So what does? Globalism and demographic changes likely account for some of it. “A lot of stereotyping happens when people don’t have contact; there is a human propensity to trust people who are familiar to you,” says Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor who’s studied prejudice for more than 30 years. “There’s a lot of change going on now, and people are having to get used to different ways of being.”

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Apply that lens to Colorado, a white-majority state experiencing an influx of new residents and shifting demographics, and a clearer picture may begin to emerge. Colorado adds roughly 70,000 new residents each year. Today, about a third of our citizens come from communities of color; by 2050, racial and ethnic minorities are expected to make up about 46 percent of the state’s population, according to Colorado research firm the Bell Policy Center. Add in economic challenges, gentrification, and a coarsening of civil discourse, and you’ve got an atmosphere ripe for resentment.

The elevated levels of acrimony have spurred action locally: In 2016, the Department of Homeland Security created a full-time position in Colorado to engage law enforcement, government agencies, and community organizations in the fight against violent extremism. A year later, Colorado became one of four states to receive a two-year grant from the National Governors Association’s Preventing Targeted Violence program. That same year, 18 advocacy organizations, mostly from within our rectangular borders, formed Mountain States Against Hate, a coalition aiming to bring resources and attention to the issue. And just a few months ago, the Denver Police Department debuted a specialized bias-motivated crimes unit.

“We all have a responsibility in this,” says state Representative Leslie Herod. “We all have biases. We have all done things that were harmful. But we need to be honest about what is happening in our society.” Because while America isn’t yet embroiled in violent political unrest, our country is propagating some of the same divisiveness that’s tearing Afghanistan (and Myanmar and Yemen) apart. It’s an ugliness that breeds in the dark—in the shadowy corners of cyberspace, in good ol’ boy banquet halls, in unreported crimes, and in unconfronted microaggressions. So, in this story, we’re putting a spotlight on hate: a 100,000-watt beam that exposes not just where it lurks in Colorado, but also how it hides, how it contorts, how it recruits, what’s being done to confront it, and—ultimately—how you can help stop it.

*Previous media reports noting hate crimes had nearly doubled in this period were based on initial Colorado Bureau of Investigation data that had not been fully reviewed.

Why You Won’t Hear From The Haters Here

If you’re scrolling through this package looking for a conversation with an admitted racist or a personal essay from an incel, you can stop. You’ll find neither in these stories. Yes, articles of that ilk are compelling. But they can also be damaging in that they provide proponents of fringe beliefs an outlet, one we don’t want to give them. This is the same logic many media outlets, including ours, now apply to their coverages of mass shooters. As Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst for legal advocacy nonprofit the Southern Poverty Law Center, points out, the rise of social media has already given the haters a megaphone. That’s why we’re giving those perspectives all the ink they deserve: none.

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