GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The man who distributed antisemitic hate propaganda in Kent County neighborhoods worried about public exposure and potential job loss, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department said.
“(The man) expressed concern about the Sheriff’s Office naming a subject responsible for this incident,” the detective who interviewed the man wrote. “He states that the complainants (neighbors who reported flyers) then have the ability to publish this information which may result in the exposure of the subject and the possible loss of a job and benefits.”
The 43-year-old man who peddled the flyers lives in the small town of Mt. Morris north of Flint.
The Anti-Defamation League told Target 8 the hate group behind the distribution often sends out-of-towners into communities to deliver its propaganda.
Early Sunday afternoon, the man cruised subdivisions in Gaines Township and Wyoming, flinging Ziploc baggies on to the driveways of unsuspecting residents. Each baggie, weighted down with birdseed, contained a flyer spewing venomous conspiracy-laden lies about Jews.
The flyers blamed Jewish people for the war in Ukraine and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, among other claims. The propaganda also pushed people to the website of an antisemitic hate group known for “papering” communities across the country and hanging offensive banners from highway overpasses.
The Anti-Defamation League told Target 8 the group, which started in the southwest United States, also harasses Jews in person, pulling off their head coverings on the street, among other stunts.
AFTER CHURCH, UNWELCOME SURPRISE
A couple returning home from church on Sunday found a flyer on their driveway on Crystalline Avenue off Kalamazoo and reported it to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
The peddler hit several streets in the Crystal Springs subdivision in Gaines Township near Kalamazoo Avenue and 68th Street.
“These hateful flyers were left in driveways throughout my neighborhood today,” a tipster wrote in a Sunday email to the News 8 newsroom.
Wyoming Public Safety confirmed it received a report of the flyers littering driveways in Chateau Estates off Burlingame Avenue.
The Kent County Sheriff’s Department tracked down the man responsible, viewing his vehicle on a resident’s Ring doorbell camera and then using a license plate reader to locate the vehicle’s plate number.
“Initially, (the man) refused to speak about this incident before he disconnected the phone in the middle of our conversation,” the detective who spoke to him wrote. “I was able to reconnect with (the man) to further speak about what occurred. Throughout the entirety of the conversation, (he) would use ambiguous terms such as ‘they’ or ‘that person’, regarding the subject dropping off flyers… (He) stated he was going to hire a lawyer, however, he continued to speak with me.”
The detective asked the man if he was from West Michigan, to which he replied, “no.”
“I then asked if (he) was driving the van,” wrote the detective. “He stated, ‘I’m not telling you anything, especially if there’s no law broke.’ (He) then stated this investigation is a civil rights infraction regarding the driver of the vehicle. He continued by stating this is a free speech ‘thing’ and it isn’t against the law, this ‘whole thing’ is stupid.”
“READ THE DAMN THINGS”
At one point, the investigator asked the man why someone might distribute such material.
“(He) told me, ‘Read the damn things and see if you can figure it out for yourself, I’m not going to admit to anything,” the detective wrote.
The detective said the man considered coming to the sheriff’s office for an interview but ultimately refused to meet.
“(He) then stated, ‘I’m just leaving town now,'” reported the investigator, who talked to the man on Monday.
Initially, the distributor of the flyers told the detective his children were likely driving his vehicle, but he later came clean.
“I asked if it was his kids or if it was actually him driving the van,” wrote the investigator. “(He) replied, ‘No, I said just put — it — it’s me alright, just forget it. I’m not going to say someone stole the van or some stupid thing. There’s no law broke.'”
Target 8 obtained the sheriff’s department’s report on the flyer distribution through the Freedom of Information Act. The name of the Flint-area man peddling the hateful propaganda was redacted throughout the report per FOIA’s privacy exemptions.
“REPREHENSIBLE” BUT CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED
The sheriff’s department turned the case over to the prosecutor’s office, requesting that it review the incident for a charge of “Ethnic Intimidation, Littering, and/or any other applicable charge.”
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker announced Wednesday morning his office could not file criminal charges in the case.
While some jurisdictions across the country have cited this particular hate group for littering, Becker said that though the flyers’ message may be considered “filth,” the case facts did not support such a charge.
“Clearly, these flyers are attempting to convey a message,” Becker wrote in a Wednesday news release. “Unlike an individual who drops a used candy bar wrapper on the property of another person, a person who distributes a flyer containing a message has not discarded ‘garbage’ as the term is generally understood – even if the message contained therein is offensive or derogatory, as it was here.”
Becker also said the man’s actions did not meet the requirements of Michigan’s ethnic intimidation statute.
“An individual commits the criminal offense of ethnic intimidation in Michigan if that person, ‘maliciously, with specific intent to intimidate or harass a person because of their race, color, religion, gender or national origin’ either (a) causes physical contact with another person, (b) damages, destroys, or defaces property belonging to that person, or (c) threatens to do either of the above with reasonable cause to believe that act would occur,” Becker wrote in his news release.
Becker said that after examining the case facts and the statute’s requirements, he concluded he could not file the charge.
“First, there was no threat to damage property or threat to cause physical contact with anyone,” Becker explained. “While the flyers contained anti-Semitic tropes about a variety of topics, the flyers did not make any threats of harm or damage to a person or property… In addition, the law requires a specific intent to harass a person or persons; there is no evidence that a specific home, person, or family in the neighborhood was targeted. It appears from the evidence available that these flyers were simply dropped in driveways around the neighborhood. If there had been a specific target, a stalking charge may be appropriate, but there does not appear to be such a target in this instance.”
Becker also noted the crime of stalking requires “two or more incidents that would make a reasonable person feel harassed, threatened, intimidated, or molested.”
“As a result, we find no basis for a stalking charge on these facts either,” Becker said.
He went on to write that “offensive speech without a true threat of unlawful action is protected under the First Amendment.”
Becker said such messages are constitutionally protected, just like the avalanche of campaign literature dropped on doorsteps during election season.
“Decisions to file criminal charges are often very fact specific,” Becker concluded. “There may be a scenario where similar behavior (flyer distribution) leads to criminal charges, I would not take from this decision that this behavior is always protected or approved of in any way. The flyers are reprehensible. However, I must follow the law, and when examining these facts under the controlling legal principles, I am unable to find any appropriate criminal charges for the individuals’ conduct.”
The Anti-Defamation League urges you to report “papering” incidents to law enforcement and the ADL itself.
“Law enforcement needs to know they’re out there,” Carolyn Normandin of ADL in Michigan said. “What we’ve seen in the last several years is a rise in antisemitism and so this group in particular is trying to foment antisemitism through conspiracy theory … and that’s what concerns me the most.”