Fresno Shooting Highlights a Disturbing Spate of Hate Crime Fatalities

Kori Ali Muhammad
Kori Ali Muhammad is seen in an undated photo released by Fresno Police in Fresno, California, April 18, 2017 Fresno Police Department/Handout via Reuters

Tuesday's shooting in Fresno, California, that left three white men dead at the hands of a black man who called himself "Black Jesus" and wrote of "white devils" highlighted a growing and disturbing trend—hate crimes that lead to multiple fatalities.

Related: In Fresno Shooting, Suspect Kori Ali Muhammad Shouted 'Allahu Akbar,' Wrote About Hatred of White People

Kori Ali Muhammad shouted "Allahu Akbar" as he was taken into custody after allegedly gunning down the three men, adding to the white security guard that police say he had killed days earlier. But the incident was not, police later said, an act of terrorism.

"We do not believe ... that this is a terrorist-related crime," Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer told reporters. "This is solely based on race." He added: "We believe it is a hate crime, definitely a hate crime."

If it is indeed a hate crime, it would continue the upward trend of hate crimes in the United States over the past two years. Overall, the number of hate crimes, defined by the FBI as a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity," rose six percent in 2015.

And there is set to be a further increase recorded for 2016, according to preliminary data collected by the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and provided to Newsweek Wednesday. That would be the first back-to-back increase since 2004. In California, the same trend is expected to be found, which would be the first time in the state in 20 years.

While there has been much focus on hate crimes, particularly following a spike in the wake of last November's election, as a total figure, the number is still considerably lower than the levels reported in 2001.

However, multi-fatality homicides carried out by a lone gunman are on the rise. The number of murders resulting from hate crimes reached 18 in 2015, a small fraction of the 5,850 recorded incidents, but the largest number since 1996. Although official data has not been released, that figure will rise substantially in 2016. Last June, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history took place, when 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino, told Newsweek that "there are segments of the hate crime picture that appear to be getting more violent.

"What we're seeing is an increase in the very small number of hate homicides relative to how many hate crimes there are," he said. "But within that small crucible of homicides, the multi-fatality extremist is becoming a significant player in the world of hate homicides, more so than they ever have."

Levin has warned that the country could be "on the cusp of an eruption" in social tensions. And, at a time that President Donald Trump's administration is reportedly set to focus counter-extremism efforts solely on Islamist extremism, Levin said that the threat is as diverse as it has been in some time.

There is something of a perfect storm fueling such extremism. Americans' views of race relations in the country are at one of the lowest levels seen since the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Meanwhile, trust in government is at one of its lowest ebbs in more than 40 years, with a president setting record-low approval ratings and attracting regular protests across the country.

"Across the spectrum, people feel disenfranchised and not served by the institutions that used to bind us together," Levin said. "The civic cohesion is eroding."

An example of such tension occurred just this past weekend when clashes between Trump supporters and anti-fascist activists Antifa turned violent in Berkley, California. Social media, says Levin, has made it far easier for extremists, from Antifa on the left to the so-called alt-right, to organize into violent clashes.

But the internet also has made it a great deal simpler for unstable individuals to become radicalized to commit the sort of deadly, violent acts witnessed in Fresno.

In recent years, there have been several mass homicides by lone extremists. Last year, there was a murder of five police officers in Dallas by a gunman who sought to kill as many white people as possible. The previous year saw nine people gunned down at a black church and 14 killed by Islamic extremists in San Bernardino. Other such multiple-fatality homicides occurred in 2012 at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and in 2009 at Fort Hood military base.

"Social networking is providing a tool for independent, angry, unstable loners to sculpt their own violent anger from reservoirs available on the internet without even having to join a group," Levin said. "It's this kind of virtual organizing that's radicalizing killers of all types."