Anatomy of a hate crime. On Saturday, April 19, Donald Trump retweeted far-right “journalist” Paul Sperry, whom the Anti-Defamation league has dubbed “an anti-Muslim blogger” for his years of spewing hate against Muslims. The Sperry tweet that caught Trump’s eye read: “Let’s see if authorities enforce the social-distancing orders for mosques during Ramadan (April 23-May 23) like they did churches during Easter.”
Later that day Trump continued to stoke the flames of bigotry at his daily press conference, defending his retweet by suggesting that Muslim-Americans would have more rights than Christians when it came to places of worship being allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 crisis, stating, “I would say there could be a difference… I’ve seen a great disparity in this country.” Trump’s words were met with swift condemnation by Muslim groups, because they knew instantly that this type of language can incite hate crimes.
Just five days later, in the early hours of April 24—the first day of Ramadan—a mosque in a small city in southwest Missouri was set ablaze, destroyed by a man with a history of anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Was there a direct connection between Trump’s amplification of an anti-Muslim message and this fire? It’s not clear. But a 2018 study did find a disturbing statistical correlation between Trump’s spewing of anti-Muslim hate on Twitter, and hate crimes against Muslims in the days that followed.
It’s not that Trump turns good people into bigots. They likely hated Muslims already, as we saw during the 2016 campaign when nearly two-thirds of GOP primary voters supported Trump’s call for a total ban on Muslims entering America. Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric during the campaign didn’t make these otherwise “good” people suddenly hate Muslims. The feeling was there long before Trump, but he just gave them the confidence to spew their hate openly.
In the case of the Islamic Center of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a city of about 40,000 located a little over 100 miles south of St. Louis, the man arrested last week for the crime, Nicholas J. Proffitt, 42, had a long history of anti-Muslim hate. In 2005, he travelled to Dearborn, Michigan, a place known for its large Muslim population, where he was arrested for throwing rocks at an Islamic center, and punching holes in the mosque’s siding.
It’s 587 miles from Cape Girardeau to Dearborn. Not an excursion a person undertakes lightly, you might think. But at the time law enforcement didn’t pursue hate crime charges against Proffitt, saying, “It was just a drunk guy with a rock.” That’s what white privilege looks like.
But in 2009 Proffitt went a step further, smashing the windows of the same mosque he’s now accused of burning down. Cape Girardeau officials took this second offense seriously, charging Proffitt with a hate crime. Consequently, Proffitt spent three years in prison after pleading guilty to the charges and was released.
This brings us to the early morning of April 24, when a surveillance video captured Proffitt at approximately 5 a.m. methodically breaking into the mosque, calmly pouring combustible fluid on chairs and rugs and then lighting it on fire. The video of Proffitt’s actions that morning has been posted on the Facebook page for the Missouri Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) by its board chair, Yasir Ali, so that people could see “how cold and determined that Proffitt was to destroy the mosque.”
After his arrest, Proffitt was charged with burglary, arson, and property damage motivated by discrimination. But as Ali, a U.S. Air Force veteran and a Pakistani immigrant, rightly noted, if Proffitt had been Muslim and had attacked other places of worship, he would’ve been labeled a terrorist. However, the word “terrorist” is nowhere to be found in discussions of Proffitt.
What happened following the attack, though, is both moving and frankly unexpected when you look at the city of Cape Girardeau from a distance. It sits along the Mississippi River in conservative Cape Girardeau County, a place that favored Trump 73 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 23 percent in 2016. Yet not only did the local authorities take this seriously and apprehend Proffitt in a short period of time; the community rose up to show its support for the Muslim community that has worshipped at this location since 1999.
The outpouring of support went far beyond the typical but perfunctory “we stand with you.” As Shafiq Malik, a spokesman for the Islamic Center, explained to me via email, the Muslim community living in the area, which totals several hundred, “were overwhelmed by the quick response and the outstanding support provided by the great people of the state of Missouri,” from GOP Governor Mike Parson, who had publicly condemned the attack, to local officials, to interfaith allies.
For example, at the nearby Christ Episcopal Church, Rev. Edie Bird posted on the church’s outdoor sign, “We love our Muslim neighbors, they are wonderful. We are in this together.” A GoFundMe campaign to help the Muslim community has raised over $150,000 in a short time.
But one of the most powerful displays of support I’ve ever witnessed came from the city of Cape Girardeau itself, in a video more than five minutes long that was posted on the city’s official Facebook page the evening of the fire, and titled “Our community sends their love to the Islamic Center Of Cape Girardeau Mo. who lost their place…” In it, members of the Cape Girardeau community offer their “love” for the Muslim community, from a local fire battalion chief who states, “We stand with you and we will always be here with you,” to a Christian pastor saying, “You mean so much to us… we are with you through this,” to a police sergeant offering the “love and support” of the entire police department.
Hate crimes sadly will happen again in our nation—our history tells us that. The response of others, though, is what can say so much about our country. In this instance, the people of Cape Girardeau have given us a master class in compassion and empathy–qualities sorely missing from much of Trump’s America.