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St. Louis Anti-Defamation League Leader Says Hate Speech Helped Fuel Capitol Riot

Karen Aroesty is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. She said the League wasn't surprised to see pro-Trump extremists turn violent at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in St. Louis, said she wasn't surprised to see pro-Trump extremists turn violent at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

For some, the violence at the U.S. Capitol last week wasn’t surprising.

Groups like the Anti-Defamation League had warned for years how hate speech can lead to mob violence.

Karen Aroesty, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Heartland office in St. Louis, sees a clear link between the violence and the last four years of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

“I don't think folks really deeply wanted to understand the impact of what that kind of leadership from that kind of bully pulpit has on people over time,” she said.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Eric Schmid spoke with Aroesty about the ways hateful rhetoric played a key role in the Capitol attack.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Eric Schmid: What is the danger, and what has come from leaving hate speech unchecked?

Karen Aroesty: If we are xenophobic, if we are anti-immigrant and anti-refugee, if we are anti-anybody who's different, we are going to lose out in the long run. The problem is, as a broad society, we haven't figured that out yet. We don't learn it in school. Intentionally. We don't.

And therefore, as we get older we don't have the confidence we need in order to cope with what's going on. And so we don't. We opt out. And that's what a lot of people have done. Over the last few years, we have talked about the nature of this administration, and how we could watch the last four years happen, and only in the last week, be eyes wide open about what happened. It did not come out of nothing.

Schmid: Is what we saw at the Capitol the result of unchecked hate speech?

Aroesty: At a very basic level it is, but it's part of layers of both intentional behavior and negligent follow-up from hate speakers in the public square to those who did not do enough to raise alarm or limit them. The dynamics of what happened at the Capitol have so many different layers to them, you can't really put it in one bucket. Whether it's in our own behavior online, how we engage with folks who are different than we are, how we vote for public officials and hold them accountable.

Schmid: One thing I thought was very disturbing to see, was not only people brandishing traditional symbols of white supremacy, but how there were others that advocated neo-Nazism, other types of racism. What did these symbols broadcast to you, to Jews, to other minority groups in the U.S. or also in this region?

Aroesty: I think it scared people to death and it should. But that's what those symbols — the Confederate flags — are designed to do. It is designed to scare people. The problem is a lot of these movements do more than just scare. They encourage folks to commit violence. And that's what happened.

Schmid: One of the things we saw was a clear double standard between the police response to Black Lives Matter protests of the summer, and a violent white mob. What else did you see, especially considering your position, your perspective, being with the Anti-Defamation League?

Aroesty: I think the St. Louis region has a unique take on what folks saw at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Because of the issues of Ferguson, the dynamic of community protest and police response. It was, frankly, one of the longest-running, if not the longest-running civil rights movement since the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There were protests every single day. But most people didn't care.

Most people didn't have to watch it. Most people could, in this region, stay in the comfort of their homes and at work and at school, and not have to see there were protesters trying to get their point across about the structure of racism in this community.

Well, you couldn't avoid that if you were watching the news on Wednesday. The nature of activism, the nature of protest, peaceful versus violent, the interrelationship of policing, with community, the optics, it was also drastically different.

Schmid: How interchangeable have racism, anti-Semitism or other xenophobias become during the past four years under Trump's presidency, how inseparable are they?

Aroesty: Race is the issue that divides us. I don't see an overlap specifically, between the things that keep anti-Semitism present and the actual racism, structural racism, that pervades our institutions, whether you're talking about education, housing, economic development, etc. They require different things.

If structural racism issues are dealt with, wholly and broadly, anti-Semitism will be reduced. In order for us to be a successful society, it has to be inclusive, accepting, welcoming, comfortable with learning about others. It has to be everything that it was not on Wednesday.

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.