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US Attorney Totten highlights national hate crime trends in his Petoskey presentation

PETOSKEY – Mark Totten, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, stopped in Petoskey this week to introduce a “United Against Hate” program.

The presentation took place on June 10 at the Carnegie Building in collaboration with Northern Michigan Against Hate and the Petoskey District Library.

Northern Michigan Against Hate is a local grassroots organization of civic groups, churches, families and individuals dedicated to fighting hate of all kinds. Their mission is to combat hate by raising public awareness and promoting kindness through educational and community-based programs and events. The group is organized and overseen by the local Kulanu chapter of Temple B'nai Israel and is politically and religiously non-affiliated. Participation is open to all.

“We've been doing this for a few years now. We offer programs to help people learn a little bit more about what it means to see anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate and what to do about it,” said Val Meyerson, director of the Petskey District Library and a member of the Kulanu chapter. “We just want to have an open conversation about it so that our community can be a safe place for everyone.”

Totten provided an update on the work of U.S. Attorneys' offices and some of their recent cases, such as the indictment of a member of a white supremacist group for defacing Temple Jacob, a historic synagogue in Hancock. He also mentioned their work in curbing illegal drug trafficking and the increasing number of deaths related to gun violence.

However, the main point of the presentation that evening was raising awareness about hate crimes.

“I want to help us better understand federal hate crime protections and what to do if you are a victim of a hate crime or hate incident or if you know of one. What do you do? I want to answer that question by the end of the evening,” Totten said.

Totten added that he also wanted to “better understand the civil rights landscape in this community.”

“I really enjoy being outdoors, I probably spend about 40 percent of my time out of the office out and about,” he said. “It's really important that I hear from our communities and understand what some of the challenges are.”

More: The United Against Hate program will take place on June 10 in Petoskey

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The program included current statistics on hate crimes in the United States and how people can report such incidents. Totten also answered questions from the audience about his work.

“One of our primary missions at the Justice Department is to protect civil rights. The Justice Department was originally created to combat hate and discrimination, particularly what was happening in the South at the end of the Civil War,” Totten told the News-Review.

“It's still a really important part of our work. Frankly, I don't think a lot of people think of us, the U.S. Attorney's Office, as a place they could call if they experience or hear about a hate incident, and I want to try to change that. I want people to know that we care about these issues, that there are strong federal laws in place that can protect the community under the right circumstances… and I want them to feel comfortable coming to us and talking to us.”

A viewer asked how to curb the rising number of hate crimes across the country. Totten said that a community standing together against such acts has a powerful deterrent effect.

More: ‘No room for hate’: Petoskey takes part in third annual Walk Against Hate

Meyerson said they experienced similar support at Temple B'nai Israel after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and again after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.

“It really makes a difference when the protected class may feel more comfortable in the community,” she said. “Just knowing that the community supports us and the temple supports us makes us feel better and makes us more comfortable practicing our faith. I think opening up the conversation in a public forum like this makes it safe for people to listen and get good information that they can use.”

Northern Michigan Against Hate will host its annual Walk Against Hate on September 29, beginning at Pennsylvania Park in Petoskey.

For more information about reporting hate crimes, visit justice.gov/hatecrimes/report-a-hate-crime.

– Contact Jillian Fellows at [email protected].