In October 2002, as 80 people attended a Friday night service at the Temple Beth Israel synagogue in Eugene, Oregon, rocks etched with swastikas crashed through the stained-glass windows. Locals remembered it as the most shocking hate crime in the state in years — even more brazen than one eight years earlier, when rifle rounds pierced the empty temple’s doors and walls. For the 2002 attack, five members of a white supremacist group were convicted. The most prominent among them, Jacob Laskey, was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
When Laskey was released in late 2015, he returned to a society that seemed more receptive to racist ideology than at any point in at least a generation. Across the country in recent months, several mosques have burned, scores of Jewish centers have received bomb threats, and at least three brown men have been shot, one fatally, by white men who demanded that they leave the country. In Salem, Oregon, earlier this month, a white man entered a Middle Eastern restaurant screaming, “Go back to your country, terrorist,” before beating an employee with a pipe.
In recent weeks, many Muslim and Jewish institutions in America have prepared for the possibility of more violence: wood to board up windows, training sessions on how to handle bomb threats, evacuation drills for children, and regular contact with law enforcement.
What has stunned congregants, however, are the incidents they could not prepare for: the wave of legal hate speech and low-level vandalism that has washed over America in the months since the election as white supremacists make their voices heard. In few places have these voices been louder than in Oregon, a place with deep ties to racist ideology.