(MintPress) – A burning cross is a powerful and frightening symbol. Used as an intimidation tactic, in particular, by American hate group the Ku Klux Klan over the past century as a symbol of white supremacy and as a terror tactic aimed primarily at African-Americans. While the action was made illegal by lawmakers in Virginia a decade ago, it still happens in many locations across the United States.
According to a recent report from the FBI, there were more than 7,000 hate crimes reported in the U.S. in 2011, the latest year for which data is available. The majority of those incidents took place at or near individuals’ homes and most of them were racially motivated. The vast majority of the perpetrators of these crimes were white.
A new independent film, “Crossing the River,” is taking up the topic in the hopes of speaking out against prejudice and racism. “I hope the film makes people aware that cross burnings still exist,” said Emilie McDonald, the film’s director in an exclusive interview with Mint Press. “I hope it creates discussions about cross burnings and the related issues of bullying, discrimination, hate crimes of all stripes and more that are affecting people all over the world.
I hope it encourages young people to actively talk and think about how their actions and decisions affect others and how important it is to think for themselves. If, after seeing the film, one person begins to have empathy for someone who is considered “different” (whether this be a multiracial person, an LGBT person, a person with disabilities or anyone else), to me the film is a success.”
Cross burning over time
Cross burning or cross lighting is a practice widely associated with the Ku Klux Klan, although the historical practice long predates the Klan’s inception. In the early 20th century, the Klan burnt crosses on hillsides or near the homes of those they wished to intimidate.
In 2002, a Virginia law made it illegal to burn a cross with the intent of intimidating someone.
But the statute was challenged by free speech advocates, who argued that burning crosses is a form of communication protected by the First Amendment. The law was challenged by three men who had been convicted under it. Two of the men were convicted of attempting to burn a cross in the yard of a black neighbor. The third led a Ku Klux Klan rally at which there was a burning cross 25 to 30 feet high, accompanied by talk of going out and randomly shooting blacks.
The U.S. Supreme Court examined the constitutionality of Virginia’s cross-burning statute in 2002, which was heralded as a landmark free-speech case. “It is a case that will seek to balance a state’s power to protect its citizens from the hateful actions of others while remaining faithful to the free-speech mandate of the U.S. Constitution,” the Christian Science Monitor reported of the event.
“If the government is permitted to select one symbol for banishment from public discourse there are few limiting principles to prevent it from selecting others,” Rodney Smolla, a law professor at the University of Richmond, stated in his brief to the court on the case. “It is but a short step from the banning of offending symbols such as burning crosses or burning flags to the banning of offending words.”
However, Virginia lawmakers countered that the law sought to prosecute intimidation, not hinder communications.
“Our ban on cross burning does not infringe anyone’s right to free speech because people do not have a right to threaten others,” said Tim Murtaugh of the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, which defended the law before the high court, to the Christian Science Monitor The only message conveyed by a burning cross is one of fear, Mr. Murtaugh said. “If you come out of your house and see a burning square or a burning circle, you will call the fire department,” he stated. “If you come out and see a burning cross, you will call the police.”
The Supreme Court upheld the Virginia statute making it illegal for Ku Klux Klansmen and others to burn crosses.
The ruling effectively gave law enforcement the authority to go after cross burners, yet leaves it up to the U.S. states and the courts to ensure that they do so without punishing protected speech.
Hate crimes by the numbers
In 2011, U.S. law enforcement agencies reported 6,222 hate crime incidents involving 7,254 offenses, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Hate Crime Statistics, 2011 report, which was released in December. These incidents included offenses like vandalism, intimidation, assault, rape, murder, etc. While it is difficult to find specific statistics from the organization on for how many instances of cross burning occur in the U.S. on an annual basis, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says about 50 such instances are reported per year. And, such instances would be considered hate crimes. Charges of harassment, stalking and intimidation are also frequently levied against those suspected of burning crosses, according to a MintPress review of national news articles documenting such cases.
Of the 6,222 reported hate crimes, 6,216 were single-bias incidents — 46.9 percent were racially motivated, 20.8 percent resulted from sexual orientation bias, 19.8 percent were motivated by religious bias, 11.6 stemmed from ethnicity/national origin bias and just under one percent were prompted by disability bias, the FBI reports. Almost 60 percent of the offenders involved in hate crimes were white and 32 percent of hate crimes committed occurred in or near homes.
Previously, MintPress has reported that hate crimes have been on the rise nationally. Hate groups are on the rise in the United States topping at 1,000 for the first time since the 1980s, when the SPLC began documenting hate groups, according to information released in 2012.
The SPLC report details the growth of hate groups to a record 1,018 in 2011, up from 1,002 the year before and the latest in a series of increases going back more than a decade.
In 2007, Neal Chapman Coombs, of Hastings, Fla., was charged with knowingly and willfully intimidating and interfering with the right to fair housing by threat of force and the use of fire and pleaded guilty to a racially-motivated civil rights crime involving a cross burning to prevent the purchase of a house by an African-American family. Coombs was sentenced to 14 months in prison in January 2007.
On Nov. 6, 2008, a Hardwick Township, N.J., family who supported U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign found a charred wooden cross on their lawn, near burnt remnants of a “President Obama – Victory ’08” banner which had been stolen from their yard.
In June 2012, a cross burning was reported in Bemidji, Minn., at the home of a woman and her adult mixed-race children. The perpetrators, aged 19 and 20, were caught and charged with the crime. The community held a rally against the cross burning. “We are encouraging speakers to focus on moving forward, what we can do in the Bemidji area to promote a climate of support for difference, uniqueness and ethnically diverse peoples,” Cory Cochran, the organizer of the event, said.
New film hopes to inspire change
“Transcending hate is an act of revolution,” reads the heading on a website for the new film, “Crossing the RIver.”
McDonald says she got the idea to make the film after reading a news story about an incident of cross burning in North Carolina recently. “I have a family friend who I’ve known since I was 3 years old (Monroe Gilmour, Coordinator of Western North Carolina Citizens Ending Institutional Bigotry) who sent out a news article in 2010 about a cross burning in Western, N.C. It was perpetrated by two white juveniles against an interracial family. The 13-year-old girl victim of the hate crime had a very positive outlook, not understanding why anyone would do such a thing and also very appreciative of the outpouring of community support for her and her family. In court, the boys turned to the girl and her family and apologized,” McDonald said. “This appealed to my sense of hope that people have the ability to change, and also to forgive. These thoughts quickly manifested into the idea for a short film, which became “Crossing the River.”
The film, which was almost completely funded by donor support, is about a modern-day cross burning, told from the point of view of both the victim and perpetrators. Seeking to understand how such a thing could still happen in this day and age, the film explores themes of racial tolerance and forgiveness.
In the film two white teenage brothers, Grant and Shawn, estranged from their mother, find the connection they are seeking with a racist older man. Michaela, an innocent 13-year-old from a mixed-race family, is new in town. After tensions in the boys’ lives escalate, a cross is burned on Michaela’s lawn. The film explores the points of view of both the victim and perpetrators, and seeks to reveal how someone can be influenced to do something morally unspeakable.
“We have come a long way. When I was a child spending a lot of time in the South (as well as other parts of the country) I witnessed many things that were difficult to stomach. Black people were often treated or spoken about as “less than” — which was something I never understood or accepted as truth. Still, it was obvious that these prejudices existed. I think now things have changed somewhat – there are many more interracial couples, African-American people are in positions of authority to a much greater extent and Jim Crow is a distant memory. However, the problem is still there. It is just more hidden,” McDonald told MintPress. “When most people heard about “Crossing the River” they thought it was set decades ago. When they learned that this was a current story, they were as shocked as I originally was. In fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 40-50 cross burnings occur across the United States and Canada every year. Awareness is the first step to continue to fight for racial justice and equality for all people, something I really appreciated Barack Obama referencing during his recent acceptance speech.”
The film will be shown in New York and South Carolina over the summer, and discussion guides are being created for educators who show the film. “Our hope is that the film will screen widely with community and youth organizations and that many thoughtful discussions will ensue,” McDonald said.
The film’s website also quotes Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as saying “the time is always right to do what is right to do.”
Those are indeed wise words that we could all live by.