DECEMBER 20, 1995
Racist language at a Harlem Clothing Store resulted in eight deaths. Charlayne Hunter-Gault examines the connection between violent words and action.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A fiery attack on a Harlem clothing store which left eight people dead twelve days ago has led to a heated debate in New York City about the connection between hateful words and hateful deaths, but the debate already was simmering, the result of other incidents around the country where violent actions followed angry words. The latest episode was at Freddy's Fashion Mart, a clothing store with a Jewish owner next door to the famed Apollo Theater.
When local residents learned that Freddy's wasn't going to renew the sublease of an adjacent black-owned record store, they protested. Several months of demonstrations began. Dozens of people gathered daily outside Freddy's, calling the owner a cracker and a blood- sucking Jew.
Black patrons were jeered and called "niggers," "Uncle Tom's," and "traitors." On December 8th, a tall, black man entered Freddy's with a gun, a can of paint thinner, and some matches. In the end, eight people were dead, some shot, including the gunman who shot himself, and some by smoke inhalation.
And Freddy's is a charred hole on West 125th Street. The tragedy at Freddy's is just the latest in a series of hate crimes. On December 7th in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a black couple was shot and killed by two white soldiers. Local police called the two men white supremacists and racist skinheads, and hate literature was found where they lived.
The army has initiated an investigation of extremist groups within the military, and the chief suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing last April when 167 people were killed has been described as sympathetic to militia groups virulently critical of the government.
Now, four different perspectives on hate language and violent action. Wilbert Tatum is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the "Amsterdam News" in New York City. Ken Hamblin is a radio talk show host in Denver. Nadine Strossen is the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Robert Bork is a former federal judge and one-time Supreme Court nominee. He is presently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington.
And going to you, Mr. Tatum, did the angry words used by the protesters at Freddy's in Harlem lead to the violent outcome?
WILBERT TATUM, The Amsterdam News: (New York) No, it didn't. There were incidents that had racial overtones. There were actually some statements made that were anti-semitic. But this was primarily a landlord-tenant dispute that escalated. My newspaper was involved in terms of reporting what was happening there as far back as September 30th.
What made this such an awful thing was--the deaths of the people in the store--was that a mayor in our city came up town and immediately offered it up as a bias incident with his policemen on the beat and his police precinct commander and his police commissioner, and they told the press before it was even investigated that there was extreme bias on the picket line, at the store, and everywhere else.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, let me just ask you this question quickly. Do you think that the, the hateful speech or the strong language used by the demonstrators had any impact at all on the atmosphere that led to the violence that may have, you know, contributed?
MR. TATUM: One can conclude that that was so, but it had I don't believe any impact at all on a very demented man who was homeless, who was once a vendor on 125th Street and had been forced out of the only employment he had by a mayor's desire to get 400 vendors off 125th Street, and if this were the kind of hate crime that has been described, then of the 350 merchants on 125th Street, more than half of them are white, and there has been no such incident at any other store.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let me ask you, Mr. Hamblin, out in Denver, from where you see the story, what do you think about it?
KEN HAMBLIN, Radio Talk Show Host: (Denver) My God, won't we ever, won't we ever step up to the podium and take responsibilities for our actions? And I'm talking not just about the black American community. I'm talking about the media. I'm talking about an acceptance with this kind of rabble rousing on the part of a select group of people, in this instance black people, that goes as far back as the Korean Green situation. When black people--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You mean the situation in which the black people in the community were opposed--
MR. HAMBLIN: Exactly.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --to Korean merchants in the community.
MR. HAMBLIN: That is exactly right. There is a standard that has been set. There's a precedent that has been set, and if the people in Harlem, New York, or in California, or in Michigan, no matter where we are, black or white, in this country, will not understand that once again we'd seen the equivalent of Crystal Night, this time on 125th Street in Harlem, New York, in broad daylight, among people who better than any others should understand what racism, hatred, and bigotry can, can bring, I--I'm at a loss. I'm baffled. I don't understand the logic here.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, excuse me--we'll get to everybody in just a second, but let me just--
MR. TATUM: I must interrupt you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: No, Mr. Tatum. Just a moment. I just want to be clear on what Mr. Hamblin is saying. So you do see a direct link between the results of what happened on 125th Street and the language and words used by the demonstrators?
MR. HAMBLIN: Yes. And I also have a tendency to take responsibility for my actions.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.
MR. HAMBLIN: If I'm caught speeding, I don't blame the color of the cop who stops me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, just--all right, let me just move to you, Judge Bork. Do you see-- the Harlem case maybe included or aside--direct connections between violent language and, and actions?
ROBERT BORK, Former Federal Judge: I think there's no question about the fact that violent language leads to violent actions. The studies, for example--this is a parallel case--on violence shown on television shows that it does increase violence in the community, study after study after study. If that is true, then certainly speech advocating hate and injury to people is likely to lead to hate and injury to people.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ms. Strossen, do you agree with that?
NADINE STROSSEN, American Civil Liberties Union: (New York) No, I don't. Actually, none of those studies has shown the kind of causal connection between violence on the media and actual violence that is a prerequisite for punishing or suppressing speech. Interestingly enough, Judge Bork talked about advocacy of violence or hatred. And as he well knows, the United States Supreme Court has unanimously for many years held that advocacy of violence, advocacy of lawless conduct is protected by the 1st Amendment of our Constitution. The only thing that is not protected is intentional incitement of imminent violence which is likely to have that effect. And the vast, vast majority of speech and protest activity that took place on 125th Street, even though it contained much racist anti-semitic language that I thoroughly disagree with and protest as a civil libertarian, the vast, vast majority of it is protected, because it does not satisfy that stringent standard. If, however, and only if, we are talking about a specific threat aimed at a particular target that causes a reasonable fear on the part of the person hearing that threat, then that kind of speech may be punished. And I understand that some affidavits have been filed indicating that there were some examples of that kind of suppressible threat. But the general political rhetoric, hateful as it might be and strongly as we disagree with its content, is constitutionally protected.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that?
JUDGE BORK: No. The trouble is what Ms. Strossen is talking about is interpretation of the Constitution that is relatively recent. It is not the way the court interpreted the Constitution for most of our history. And I'm afraid as this society becomes increasingly polarized and violent and we hear increasingly violent speech, the court is going to have to re-think what it has done to that part of the First Amendment and maybe go back to an older view that it had which I think was more sensible.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Tatum, you, you heard what Ms. Strossen just said. Do you believe that any of the speech that was spoken on the 125th Street might fall into that category?
MR. TATUM: If the investigation reveals that there was a person there who said burn the so and so, or, do this, do that, that is punishable by law. But I agree with her totally in terms of her defense of the freedom of speech. And I think that it is inviolate, and those in America who would wish to rewrite the Constitution, if you will, and to say that if this person or that person says this about that person or that person, they should be punished, burned at the stake, what have you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that what you were saying, Mr. Hamblin?
MR. HAMBLIN: You know what--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In Denver.
MR. HAMBLIN: You believe can scrub it up--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hold on just a minute. Let me get Mr. Hamblin to respond. Go ahead, Mr. Hamblin.
MR. HAMBLIN: You people can scrub it up all you like. The bottom line is that there is a growing monster of a racial void in this country. Anti-semitism has become tres chic among black avowed racists like the Nation of Islam. Mindless people were led to stand up against some mythological encroachment of the infamous Jew. The result is death in the heart of New York City, and you can scrub all you like. The bottom line is if we don't dig our heels in now and say no, we're going to be a country torn asunder.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about that, Mr. Tatum?
MR. TATUM: I--I'm sorry. I am listening to this gentleman, and it sounds like so much rhetoric coming from the conservative end of the spectrum. That would make us more or less a police state.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But do you believe that it's all right to use hate speech as a form of protest?
MR. TATUM: No, no. I abhor it with all my heart, but it happens every day. Just as I left my office today, I got a call from the police lieutenant in our area wanting to tap our phones, not tap it, but trace calls that came to us yesterday or day before saying, "We're going to kill all you niggers." It did not make me happy, but I know that that person who called had a right under our Constitution to say that, and I had a right to try to catch him and put him in jail for saying it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, Ms. Strossen.
MS. STROSSEN: May I interject something?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yes. I'm sorry. I was trying to get back to you.
MS. STROSSEN: The very old Supreme Court opinion, contrary to what Judge Bork said, going back to the 1920s, in which the--very distinguished justices, such as Brandeis and Holmes, strongly defended freedom of speech, even for speech to quote Holmes that we might believe to be fraught with death. He said that still has to be protected, except for an emergency. Short of an emergency, in other words, the intentional incitement of imminent violence, short of that, the answer to speech that we abhor is counter-speech. And I do agree with Mr. Hamblin to the extent he is saying that we should say no, we should raise our own voices to denounce and to protest the anti-semitism and the other racist speech that is too ubiquitous in our society. But we may not turn to the government to punish it or to censor it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: She's right about that, isn't she, Judge Bork? Judge Bork, please.
MR. HAMBLIN: Can I respond?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: No. Judge Bork is going to respond.
JUDGE BORK: The Holmes decision she is talking about were dissents. The majority of the court said you could punish advocacy of violence and as late as 1952 in the Bo Harnee case a statute which said you could not insult or ascribe horrible things to any race was upheld as a group libel law, and a man was convicted for, in that case it was a white attacking blacks. So, you know, this thing about "the" First Amendment, the First Amendment has changed over time, has been re-thought, and it'll have to be re-thought again.
MS. STROSSEN: I certainly would not want--
MR. HAMBLIN: The bottom line, Ms. Gault, if I might, the bottom line is this. The New York City authorities discussed and debated this thing on the same basis and refused to issue a restraining order prior to fire and death at Freddy's Fashion Mart. The bottom line is this: That we have pogroms being committed again in the United States of America this time and unbelievably, they are not white Aryan goose-stepping Nazis doing it, but the sons and descendants of former slaves who know better than most what racism and bigotry and hatred as wrought against us as a people, and these people who will not speak out against that are nothing more than apologists, and I would not let them off the hook.
MS. STROSSEN: You have to speak out. No, you have to speak out against it. And you certainly have to act against violence. The government has a responsibility to protect the store owners. I have heard allegations that police were not enough of a presence--
MR. HAMBLIN: And it did not--it did not--it did not do its job.
MS. STROSSEN: --there, and that is the important thing. We cannot suppress speech if there is not an actual threat, but we have to provide police protection. That man should not have been allowed to go into the store carrying a gun. Where were the police then?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. But let's just--
MR. HAMBLIN: The case was--the case was filed--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let's just get a little bit away from the Harlem--
MR. HAMBLIN: This is not about the government.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Excuse me just a minute, but the Harlem situation, though, is just one of several where there have been efforts to make some connection between hate and violence. And Judge Bork, you said, yourself, that these kinds of things seem to be on the rise. Do you believe that they're on the rise, that there is something that needs to be done today that hasn't been done in the past that justifies tougher action?
JUDGE BORK: Yes. I think the incidents are on the rise. And I think white Americans got quite a jolt in October of this year when the Simpson verdict came down and then the Million Man march, and then Fidel Castro being cheered in Harlem. And that indicates that there's a greater racial divide than most of us had thought.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But also, we had the Oklahoma bombing.
JUDGE BORK: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And we have the Fort Bragg incident in which the alleged Nazi skinheads killed a--I mean, do you see all of these things connected?
JUDGE BORK: I do. I do. I think we're becoming a less civil, more violent, and a more angry society.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And your solution?
JUDGE BORK: Well, I think one solution, of course, we ought to talk about these things, of course, we ought to apply shame and stigma to people who talk that way, but I think eventually we're going to have to also apply law to them. People who call for violence against groups, I think, ought to be subject to criminal law.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You mean, change--
JUDGE BORK: As they used to be.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --change the Constitution?
JUDGE BORK: No. It's not changing the Constitution. The Constitution used to be that way and got changed in the 60's by the court. Now what the court did in the 60's is not "the" Constitution, it's the latest interpretation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ms. Strossen, do you think these incidents are on the rise, and that something different has to happen now to deal with them? What's your solution?
MS. STROSSEN: There is definitely an epidemic of racist, anti-semitic, biased speech and conduct in this society, but suppressing speech is not the answer. And we have role models, unfortunately, that we should not follow, countries around the world where hate speech on the basis of race and religion and ethnicity has long been a crime, has not resulted in reducing either racially or religiously or ethically motivated violence, or--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you're--
MS. STROSSEN: --discrimination. For example, the Balkans, those societies want suppressed hate speech. It has not led to any suppression of actual violence. We have to punish the actual violence, protect people who are actually threatened with violence, and increase our education and our race relations, and sensitivity training, including on the part of the police and government officials.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Tatum, just briefly,--
MR. TATUM: At this point--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --what is your solution?
MR. TATUM: Well, first of all, to have accurate reporting on what's going on at a place like 125th Street, we have one business that was subjected to a landlord-tenant dispute that was escalated into an anti, and anti-Jewish confrontation by a mayor of a city and his police commissioner.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.
MR. TATUM: Most of the businesses, all of the businesses on the street are still functioning even as we speak.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, Mr. Tatum, I'm sorry, we have to leave it there. Mr. Hamblin, thank you for joining us, Ms. Strossen, and Judge Bork.