Brian Levin, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, isn’t sure how old he was the day a pack of racists kicked his ass for being Jewish.
“I was in the third or fourth grade, and it was spring break, I know that,” he says while rummaging through papers in his insanely messy office at Cal State San Bernardino. “I was walking to my father’s veterinary clinic in the South Bronx when these older Italian kids came up and just beat the crap out of me. They kept calling me a Christ-killer.”
The older boys tired of their new punching bag and left, and the bruised and bloodied future expert on hate crimes shuffled on to his dad’s clinic.
“One of the neighborhood men, this big Italian guy, was in my father’s office when I walked in, and he looked at me and said, ‘Jesus, what happened to you? Did the niggers get a hold of you?’ I said, ‘No, I think they were Italian.’ And he said, ‘Italian? Well, that ain’t right.”
Childhood traumas like a gang beating have a way of sticking with you. As a teenager, I once had the crap beaten out of me by a group of stoners at a pot party, and to this day I’m nervous and mistrustful around longhaired men. But Levin, 43, insists that springtime event in the South Bronx was “no big deal” and did nothing to influence his career choices.
Nevertheless, Levin has made it his life’s work fighting both in-your-face hate activity, like the beating of a child for being Jewish, and the passive bigotry that allows otherwise good people to look the other way when hate crimes occur.
As associate director of legal affairs for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch/Militia Task Force and editor of the center’s Intelligence Report, he helped expose the inner workings of such extremist groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance. His scholarly writings aided lawmakers in passing federal hate crime statutes. His 1993 amicus brief in Wisconsin vs. Mitchell helped convince the Supreme Court to uphold hate crime legislation. An internationally recognized expert in his field, he has testified before Congress and has been interviewed on 60 Minutes, Dateline, World News Tonight, Crossfire and The O’Reilly Factor.
In 1999, Levin and his family moved to the Inland Empire, where he took a professorship at Cal State San Bernardino. Two years later, he formed the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a weighty name for an organization that at any given time consists of just Levin and one or two unpaid student interns. The center was barely a year old when it passed through its baptism of fire in the form of the June 2002 murder of Jeffrey Owens, a popular gay man who was stabbed with an ice pick by Latino gang members in the parking lot of the Menagerie bar in Riverside. Levin’s organization played a critical role in capturing Owens’ killer by supplying the Western Inland Empire Coalition Against Hate (WIECAH)—a group of Inland civic leaders and law enforcement officials—with the legal and statistical information it needed to galvanize the Riverside community into action.
“We had to overcome a lot of distrust in the gay community, because their encounters with law enforcement previously had often been very negative,” says Robert Gill, vice chairman of WEICAH. “We held meetings and candlelight vigils, and were able to quickly get the cooperation of the public to make an apprehension of Owens’ killers fairly quickly. The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community felt they were being recognized and supported. Our group still discusses the case as an example of what can work right once a terrible event takes place, of how you can constrain its negative impact and how everybody can work together and build a case.”
Levin is adamant that his role in the Jeffrey Owens case was a minor one at best. WEICAH, he says, would have done a perfectly fine job without him. He insists that all his work addressing the problems of hate and extremism was no big deal. His scholarly publications were just “a drop in the bucket.” His efforts on federal hate crime laws were just “a pebble near the bottom of a vast mountain.” He says these things, however, while literally out of breath from hurrying about his CSUSB digs to prepare for his midday flight to Sacramento on yet another center-related mission.
For all his talk of being no one important in the scheme of things, Levin’s a busy, busy man, driven—one suspects—by his personal philosophy:
“If you’re an entity that wants to discriminate against any class, then you’re on my radar. If you condone prejudice, and support it, I’m against you. If you’re for unlawful violence, I’m against you. If you’re a person of goodwill, you’ve got nothing to worry about with me.”
Such straightforward talk stands out in the human rights arena, where legalese and all-inclusiveness are the preferred modes of communication, and it’s why Levin is considered something of a maverick in his field. He doesn’t hesitate before telling you he considers the anti-immigration group Save Our State a bigger threat to human rights today than the Klan or the Nazi Lowriders, which he dismisses as a drug gang generally interested only in protecting its turf.
“The Klan in Southern California is insignificant,” he says. “Yes, there was a spike in Klan activity here recently, but that was like a stock going up from a nickel to 8 cents. But even a group like the Klan, which is considered the knuckleheads of the hate community, can exploit the issue of anti-immigration to spread its message.”
Nor is he reluctant to mention that a disturbing hate crime trend he’s seeing both here and elsewhere involves minorities assaulting other minorities—blacks attacking Latinos, Latinos attacking blacks.
“I think that California has difficulty in dealing with the fact that the kind of hate we’re seeing is so broad,” he says. “We don’t know how to deal with it, for fear of stepping on someone else’s turf or offending someone. I’m someone who’s respected but not overly liked, because I believe in consistent, well-thought-out rules.
“Look at the reports, and you’ll see the overwhelming majority of hate crimes are by and between people of color. That’s a tragedy. It’s heartbreaking, and it turns my stomach. But at the same time, we shouldn’t ignore that while African Americans are three times more likely to be victims of hate crimes, they’re also slightly more likely to be offenders.”
This “democratization of hate,” as Levin calls it, has been noted by other agencies, such as the L.A. County Human Rights Commission and, locally, WEICAH.
“We’re seeing a lot of minority-against-minority hate crimes,” says Mike Kinsman, a retired San Bernardino police captain and current vice president of WEICAH. “It seems to be starting as a territorial deal between gangs. In Riverside, you see a shooting of a Hispanic in a drive-by, and later you have a drive-by by an African American. It’s reinforced in the prison system, where the population is segregated to reduce violence. But that just increases the tribalism, and when the inmates get back out on the street, it explodes.”
Further setting Levin apart from many of his colleagues is he’s also quick to denounce hate crimes against non-minorities.
“The human relations community in California has got to take a better stand when ‘non-traditional’ groups are attacked,” he says. “Why wasn’t the community in an uproar early on when three white women were attacked by a group of black people in Long Beach last year? That was a black-on-white lynching.”
Interviewing Levin is a difficult endeavor. His body is in a constant state of movement, and his mind simply refuses to stay on the same topic long enough to accommodate note-taking. One suspects that if he had four legs, he’d split himself in two.
“This is a guy who has a tendency to speak and move at the speed of light,” says Morris S. Casuto, the San Diego regional director of the Anti-Defamation League who worked with Levin creating hate crime classes for the law-enforcement community. “He’s accomplished an extraordinary amount of things in a brief period of time, such as forming the hate and extremism center. As a scholar, he’s published an astonishing volume of work.”
Much of Levin’s seemingly bottomless reserve of restless energy is spent these days training local, state and federal law enforcement agencies on hate crime laws and extremist groups—an endeavor that helps increase CSUSB’s reputation, if not its cash flow. “We’re losing money,” he says. “I’ve got probably the only center here at the school that’s operating at a loss.”
He’s also spending a lot of time on a project of huge personal importance to him—making attacks on the homeless a hate crime category. It’s a project that has him regularly flying to Sacramento to testify in support of a state Senate bill that would increase penalties for homeless assaults. It’s also one that sets many of his colleagues’ teeth on edge.
“I think it’s an interesting debate, but I’m not sure if we’re going to come down in support of Brian’s position,” says Mark Potok, director of the intelligence department at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “One can argue this both ways. Really, the question in my mind is whether the homeless are being targeted because the perpetrators hate the homeless, or simply because they’re very easy to task. It’s like when you attack people in wheelchairs, do you do it because you hate wheelchairs? Or because the victims aren’t likely to chase you?”
Such logic causes Levin to shake his head in wonder.
“This is a qualitatively distinct form of victimization,” he says. “The attitude I keep encountering is that, because we have so many people incarcerated, we don’t need to be adding to that roll. My attitude is that we need the option of taking people of bad will, who go out and set homeless people on fire and beat them to a pulp, and send them to jail for a long time. We had double the number of homeless people murdered from 1999 to 2005 because they were homeless—not because they were being robbed or attacked by other homeless people. That’s a greater increase than all the other hate categories combined.”
Levin admits that the homeless bill, co-authored by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, isn’t likely to become law any time soon. But, he says, he’s as used to disappointment as he is to pissing people off. Along with the requisite drawer full of hate letters from his adoring fans in the extremist community, he carries with him the pride of being called names by some of the best name-callers of our time.
The Israeli press labeled him “soft on terrorism” for his comment to a Christian Science Monitor reporter that he believed former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was going to assassinate Yasser Arafat. The late Irv Rubin, founder of the Jewish Defense League, responded to Levin’s criticisms of the group by saying to his face, “You’re the kind of Jew who would put other Jews into the oven just to show how egalitarian you are.”
And then there was the time in 1998 when, while monitoring a Klan rally in Warren, Ohio, he came to the aid of an elderly racist who was about to be beaten by a group of protesters.
“The protesters turned on me and shouted, ‘Die, Nazi scum!’ because they thought I was a member of the Klan,” he says. “That was just the best compliment ever.”