By Sophie Foster
On March 28, the Human Rights Campaign received a voicemail threatening severe physical violence on the day following a massacre at The Covenant School in Nashville.
Adam Michael Nettina of West Friendship, Md. pleaded guilty in federal court in August to one count of using interstate communications with a threat to injure, according to the Justice Department. He faces up to five years in prison.
The DOJ also said that Nettina “admitted to leaving the threatening voicemail and to targeting his victims because of their actual and perceived gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”
Nettina also confessed to sending similarly threatening messages to two Virginia and Maryland lawmakers who share public support of transgender Americans, according to The Washington Blade.
“The defendant in this case attempted to terrorize the LGBTQI+ community by calling in multiple threats of violence to a local advocacy group,” Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Investigative Division Luis Quesada said. “The FBI will not tolerate these acts of hate, and we remain committed to investigating civil rights violations and keeping our communities safe and free from fear.”
This incident, though deeply troubling, is far from singular.
According to the DOJ, bias-motivated violence and hate crimes are on the rise nationwide, more than quadrupling in their total numbers in the time between 2019 and 2021. Most significant increases stem from categories of violence motivated by race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Additionally, according to the Journal of Democracy, “the nature of political violence has also changed.”
The media’s focus on collectives like the Proud Boys and other extremist organizations is actively obscuring the uptick in violence from individuals not tied to any one group or organized body. Largely, according to the Journal of Democracy, this evidently comes from individuals’ self-radicalization through online engagement practices, including on websites as commonplace as Twitter and Reddit.
According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, the majority of political violence committed in the United States is conducted by those not belonging to any formal organization.
In contemporary political dialogues, ideas once limited to fringe extremist groups now do not struggle to find homes in mainstream media outlets and across social media.
Anyone with internet access runs a decent chance of stumbling upon white supremacist ideologies, conspiracy theories, provocative language, and microaggressive thought patterns.
According to the Journal of Democracy, these shifts in rhetoric have generated a concerning new reality: that “millions of Americans [are] willing to undertake, support, or excuse political violence. . .as physical harm or intimidation that affects who benefits from or can participate fully in political, economic, or sociocultural life.”
Sometimes, violence is instigated by occasions such as mask mandates that these individuals claim to be disruptive to their sense of personhood. At other times, it is wielded as a partisan weapon to impact elections and democratic processes. Regardless, it is a growing crisis, and is one that is becoming increasingly challenging to address, particularly in states willing to accept extremism as outlying, harmful philosophy rather than an emerging pattern.
A common talking point in historically left-inclined states, including Maryland, is whether or not these issues really have much impact within those states at all. It is true that Maryland, according to CNN, delivered 65% of its vote in the 2020 presidential election to Democrat President Joe Biden. In fact, Democratic candidates won the vote in the last seven elections in the state of Maryland, classifiying the state as decidedly blue in its political orientation.
It is critical that those of us in those states do not accept this rhetoric. It was a Maryland man, not a Florida man or an Alabama man, who felt empowered enough to verbalize murder threats to the HRC this year.
It was also Maryland that saw the violent killing of Freddie Gray at police hands in 2015. It was a Maryland county that instituted book bans removing dialogue about race and LGBTQ+ identities from public schools.
It was Maryland that twice elected a Republican governor who faced civil rights disputes over racial divides encouraged during his tenure.
To be clear, this is not an issue isolated to Maryland as a not-so-true-blue outlier.
Massachusetts, for example, is similarly left-inclined, and therefore similarly inclined toward hidden patterns of hate crimes and politically motivated acts of violence.
“It is too late to deal with any of these issues because to counter them, or work them out, would mean working with people who have some sense of fairness and compassion…[I]ntolerance and even hate is clothed differently here, but it certainly does exist,” freelance writer Howard Lisnoff said of Massachusetts for Counter Punch.
It is also worth noting that, while Nettina awaited trial in Maryland, Florida Democrats launched a “take back Florida” tour approaching the 2024 election, according to Wesh. Alabama saw the creation of a new district expected to be heavily influenced by Black voters in response to the state’s history with gerrymandering, according to Roll Call.
The takeaway here is that one is not shielded from bigotry simply by taking up residence somewhere the media paints as idyllic and politically solid in its Democratic leanings. Marginalized groups in the U.S. are not innately safe from harm based on the digits on their zip code. Allowing the public to believe this is a great failing of contemporary media reportage.
Distinct opportunities for unique dialogue exist in states where the maintenance of the status quo is supposedly the expectation. Instead of blindly believing rhetoric handed down from year to year, those invested in moving forward with an empathetic eye on vulnerable populations should make a concerted endeavor to engage in that dialogue.
If Maryland wants to be an enduringly left state, it needs to behave like one.