What do you think the prison sentence should be for a Muslim-American man who stood outside of a Christian church on Sunday during Mass and yelled at worshippers, “I’m going to kill you all!” Before you answer, let me add some more facts. Assume this same Muslim man, a short time before going to that church, had posted horribly anti-Christian statements on his Facebook profile and called for Christians to be eliminated from America. He even posted photos of a homemade bomb on his Facebook page.
Oh yeah, one more fact. The police went to that Muslim man’s house and found a device that police described as looking like “a possible homemade explosive device,” which they detonated.
So what would be the appropriate prison sentence to ensure that this man doesn’t actually carry out his threatened terrorist attack, as well as sending a clear message to others thinking of terrorizing Christian Americans?
Would you be OK with 90 days in jail? I doubt it. In fact, I bet many would be outraged. There would likely be headlines about this horrific injustice, and people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would be using this incident to further scare Christians about Muslims. The hashtag #ChristianLivesMatter would fill social media.
Yet those exact facts happened in California, except that the man involved was not a Muslim. Rather it was William Celli, a Christian who days after the San Bernardino terror attack stood outside a mosque in Richmond, California, and yelled at worshippers leaving Friday prayer services, “I’m going to kill you all!”
Celli’s Facebook page was littered with hate-filled comments about Muslims. In one he demanded that all Muslims be sent “back to their country of origin whether or not they were born here.” Celli also posted a warning about Muslims to his fellow Christians, “Kiss your Christian asses good bye. And all other non-believers of the Koran.” You get it. Celli despised Muslims.
Even more alarming is that Celli posted only a few weeks before a photo of a pipe bomb on Facebook that he claimed to have constructed.
The threats of Celli, a self-proclaimed Trump supporter whose Facebook page reads like a Trump speech filled with anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, and anti-immigrant statements, truly terrorized the Muslims at this mosque. As Richmond police Capt. Mark Gagan stated at the time of the arrest, Celli “was threatening violence on them, and they were very shaken by it.”
The mosque’s Imam, Hamza Mehter, explained to me that many in the community were very alarmed by the incident. Mehter noted that numerous people called him expressing great concern for their families. And Mehter noted that many parents wouldn’t let their kids come to the mosque’s after-school and Sunday school classes because they feared for the safety of their children after Celli’s threats.
Celli was later arrested, although it wasn’t until about two weeks after the incident. A subsequent search of Celli’s apartment uncovered, per the police, “a possible homemade explosive device,” which was the device that they detonated. Later the police noted the device was not a functioning bomb because it was missing the “explosive elements.”
At this point the police, the district attorney and the judge all viewed Celli as a very dangerous man. He was charged with a felony count of making terroristic threats with a hate crime enhancement that carried up to seven-year prison sentence.
The prosecutor assigned to the case, Derek Butts, shortly after Celli’s arrest told the judge that “Mr. Celli has essentially threatened people’s lives… of the Muslim faith.” And at his arraignment, the judge imposed a bail far above $47,500 called for by the bail schedule for this charge. Instead she raised it over $500,000 noting that, “this is a hate crime.”
It would appear that Celli was going to be facing at least a few years in prison.
But then something happened. Members of the local Muslim community who didn’t want to go on record noted that the DA’s office appeared to not be that interested in prosecuting the case as time went on (although they all praised the police.) Next thing they heard were rumors was that Celli was about to be offered a plea deal of only 90 days in jail and three years probation. The leaders of the Muslim community targeted by Celli weren't even consulted in advance of that deal being formulated. Thereafter, Muslim community members did have meetings with the DA’s office, but they were told that the evidence wouldn’t support anything more than this deal.
Last week Celli pled guilty and in accordance with the plea deal was only sentenced to 90 days in jail. While many in the community are understandably unhappy with this very short prison sentence, they are also deeply disappointed with how the media has all but ignored this story. Over and over I heard: “How much more media coverage would it be if it were a Muslim man threatening Christians at a church?”
They are absolutely correct. Scary Muslims get ratings and are used as props by politicians to score points. But when Muslims are the victims, we garner little media coverage. We even hear Republicans claim that anti-Muslim hate crimes and bigotry are exaggerated. You get a sense that to many, Muslim lives simply don’t matter.
Mehter noted that a silver lining to this incident was that the mayor and council publicly declared that they stood with the Muslims and even attended a Muslim community event to show their solidarity. That’s great.
The downside is that Celli will likely only have to serve 46 days of the 90-day sentence. That means that in about six weeks, a man who traveled to a mosque to threaten to kill Muslims, who had posted hateful comments about Muslims as well as an image of a bomb, will be back on the street. Let’s just hope that the sentence given to Celli is enough to deter him and anyone else who may want to terrorize American Muslims from acting on their violent impulses. If not, the next articles we will sadly see will be about Muslim Americans being injured or even killed by the Cellis of this country.