It was a little after midnight last week Thursday when Kayla Santosuosso began to put together a volunteer initiative to connect New Yorkers willing to share their commutes with anyone afraid of facing harassment en route.
Reports of racist vandalism and taunts were pouring in after the election of Donald Trump, and the community organizer in Brooklyn hoped that 30 or 40 people in her closest circles might help out to accompany anyone close to where they lived – people of color, LGBTQ folk, and especially Muslims, who were already telling her they felt a little afraid.
Within days, more than 5,500 people signed up for her project, dubbed "accompany my neighbor."
“Wow, the response to this form has been absolutely incredible – certainly way, way more than I planned for,” wrote Ms. Santosuosso, deputy director of the Arab American Association of New York, to potential volunteers. “That said, it is clear that you all want to find a way to support and protect your neighbors,” adding that she was now looking for other ways for them to support those feeling marginalized and afraid.
As hate speech and crimes have fostered fear among minorities nationwide, many advocates have been just as surprised at the outpouring of support that they have received – raising hopes that amid the turmoil of this election, communities can forge greater unity and strength.
“Over the coming weeks and months I think we are going to see a lot of coalition building and finding strength and sources of hope and solidarity through these efforts,” says Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates in Oakland, Calif. “It’s important for communities to come together – and I think there's been a lot of this the past few days. That, I think, brings strength to those communities who are impacted, helping them recognize that no one community is going to be alone.”
Many Americans have been horrified by racist acts, from swastikas on the doors of Jewish students in New York City over the weekend to a spray-painted “Make America White Again” on a Little League dugout in upstate New York.
In California, Ms. Ahussain says her organization – like others, including The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – has been inundated with reports of such incidents across the country. She emphasizes how urgent it is that law enforcement pursue these crimes.
On Monday, the FBI reported that attacks against American Muslims surged by 67 percent in 2015, driving a larger increase in hate crimes nationwide last year. And civil rights groups say that trend has only increased so far in 2016, fueled by the vitriol and rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaigns.
In recent weeks, violence has also flared on the other side, with Trump supporters being attacked verbally and physically, though the extent of the violence is less clear.
President-elect Trump, in his interview with "60 Minutes" that aired on Sunday, said he was “so saddened” to hear of hate incidents springing up around the country. “I’ll say it right to the camera – stop it," he said. He added, however, that he believed it was only a small number of incidents.
This week Trump’s transition team has faced furor over his appointment of Stephen Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News, as chief strategist and senior counselor for the president elect. Breitbart is the voice of the "alt-right" movement, which the left has decried as openly racist and anti-Semitic.
Mr. Bannon’s rise into the highest echelons of power in Washington coincides with his former publication Breitbart News becoming a social-media juggernaut. On election day, the far-right news site garnered more shares, likes, and comments on Facebook than CNN, Buzzfeed, The New York Times, and Fox News. Breitbart cites analytics firm NewsWhip as the source of the ranking.
In what has become in many ways a struggle over the dominant media narrative, Breitbart readers and other conservatives have focused on counter-examples of acts of bias.
And for many conservatives, their social-media feeds contain stories about a number of incidents in which supporters of Trump were attacked for expressing their political views. In the Bronx, resident Corey Cataldo told police that he was accosted on the subway and choked by two men who noticed his “Make America Great Again” hat, according to The New York Post.
Liberals “try to make it look like it’s the Trumpers who are all violent, but it’s not,” Mr. Cataldo said. “It’s the other side, too.”
In Meriden, Conn., a police lieutenant arrested two men, black and Latino, who stopped their car at a traffic island and began to punch and kick a Trump supporter, who was waving a political sign and American flag. After witnessing the encounter, the officer arrested both men – one of whom was carrying 54 bags of heroin, according to WTNH-TV in Connecticut.
They also focused on some stories of attacks against minorities that have been discredited. On Sunday, a Breitbart News story reported a “Wave of Fake ‘Hate Crimes’ Sweeps anti-Trump Social Media,” which included the story of a female Muslim student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
She had reported that she was beaten, robbed, and had her hijab ripped off by two men, one whom she said was wearing a white “Trump” hat. Police now say the student admitted she fabricated the story, according to the Washington Post.
'I'm done whining'
Groups such SPLC and the ADL, however, say reports of bias crimes against minorities continue to pour in. Both have urged the president-elect to reconsider his appointment of alt-right provocateur Bannon.
But minorities and others aren't waiting for authorities to take action.
Zainab Chaudary and Elizabeth Grotyohann, along with a group of their childhood friends, also wanted to respond to growing incidents of harassment and vandalism. A lot of their family members and other friends said they didn’t really know what Muslims and other marginalized groups were going through. So together they started compiling incidents on a website called And Then They Came For Us, allowing people to share their stories.
“But I know that people respond more to positivity,” says Ms. Chaudary, a public relations specialist for ReThink Media in Washington. “That resonates better with folks than just the doom and gloom, so we wanted to include stories of all the allies from non-marginalized communities who are talking about the proactive, concrete actions that people are taking in their neighborhoods.”
Among them was a woman named Zahra, who – while struggling to understand her fellow Americans better in the election's aftermath – got talking with her Uber driver, Roy. A Vietnam vet and former Air Force soldier who had voted for Donald Trump, he expressed sympathy that she might be facing deportation – assuming she was an immigrant.
In the past that would have angered her, she wrote, since she was born in the US. This time, she engaged with him – and they even ended up discussing politics over dinner.
“I’m done whining about wanting to make a difference, but being hesitant to make the first move towards understanding perspectives and opinions that do not align with my own,” wrote Zahra in her post, smiling in a selfie with Roy. "From now on, I’m going to do my part, however small it may be, to build bridges and not walls.”