As a seventh-grader at Akron’s Our Lady of the Elms, Cynthia Deitle saw the famous photo of 14-year-old Florida runaway Mary Ann Vecchio wailing and kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller during the May 4, 1970, shootings at Kent State University.

The Akron native said the photo inspired her to get into government because she thought the government killing its citizens was the worst thing that could ever happen, and she wanted to prevent it from happening again.

Her decades specializing in police brutality and hate crimes, including 22 years as an FBI special agent before her 2017 retirement, proved her wrong.

“I think we’d all agree that we’re living in some scary times,” she said during a presentation titled “When Hate Goes Mainstream,” attended by about 100 people Wednesday evening at Akron’s Schultz Campus for Jewish Life.

Deitle is now programs and operations director for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, started by the parents of a gay 21-year-old Wyoming college student who was attacked, tied to a fence in a field and later died in 1998.

His death led to the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expands the definition of hate crimes to include those directed at LGBT people. Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, were instrumental in the passage of the act, whose other namesake, Byrd, was a black man killed by three white supremacists in Texas in 1998.

Deitle, who holds a law degree and two master’s degrees in law, shared information about the reported increase in bias crimes in the country, the threat posed by violent white supremacists and how communities can join together to combat divisive rhetoric.

According to the FBI’s 2017 report on hate crime statistics, there were 7,175 criminal incidents, a 17 percent increase from 6,121 incidents in 2016. The most victimized individuals were African-Americans, Jews and gay men.

It isn’t clear from the study if hate crimes are on the rise or if the increase is because law enforcement agencies have stepped up reporting, according to the Associated Press.

Deitle, a St. Vincent-St. Mary graduate, bemoaned the lack of uniformity among the 18,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies in reporting hate crimes to the FBI — which they're not required to do. Of the 16,149 law enforcement agencies that reported data, 88 percent reported zero hate crimes occurred in their jurisdiction.

“Come on, what signal does that send to anybody who identifies as a minority of some fashion — if a crime that occurs because of who they are is not counted?” she said. “They don’t matter? That’s horrifying.”

Akron reported 14 hate crimes in 2017, with 10 incidents related to race, religion or ancestry and four incidents related to disability, Deitle said.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, from the government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimates there are 250,000 bias crimes every year, and other organizations, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Anti-Defamation League, Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Transgender Equality, report different numbers.

Although all the data is “unreliable,” “not credible” and “unhelpful,” it’s still important to have it, Deitle said, as it’s what drives investigations and shows victims they’re being heard.

Deitle said hate affects not just the victim or the victim’s family, but a whole community. Although community members often band together in the wake of tragedy, it also makes them anxious, depressed and afraid to leave their homes after one of their own is attacked or assaulted, causing schools, economies and communities to suffer.

“People are afraid they’re going to be next,” said Deitle, who is gay.

An audience member asked her if hate has gone mainstream.

“It’s a lot more public,” said Deitle, adding people with hateful feelings have always existed. But she said President Donald Trump has emboldened some, such as the white supremacists who didn't cover their faces at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.

To create positive change, Deitle encouraged voting; supporting the Ohio Fairness Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity/expression to Ohio anti-discrimination laws; communicating with elected officials; advocating for themselves and others; reaching out for help when needed; mentoring in schools; or picking a cause.

“Make your voice heard,” she said.

Deitle’s presentation was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Community Board of Akron.

"We as a Jewish community certainly have a history of addressing hate, whether it's the fight for civil rights, human rights internationally or simply the rights of our fellow citizens to practice, to live and to love how and with whom they wish in peace without fear of persecution,” said Jewish Community Board of Akron CEO Todd Polikoff. “We as a Jewish community also know all too well the progression that soon follows when hate becomes mainstream and is not met with a resounding rebuke."

 

Contact Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and @EmilyMills818.