By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY – Yolanda Melville initially saw the harassment by a hacker during a New Jersey State NAACP vote by mail Zoom presentation last Thursday as an annoyance.
But then, things escalated and what appeared to be a juvenile prank turned into what some believe to be a hate crime and intimidation tactics on the virtual meeting platform, filled with racial epithets and threats to kill Blacks and Jews.
Some in South Jersey’s Jewish community and NAACP spoke out this week about the incident to Front Runner New Jersey.com and how such tactics will not keep them from their mission of civil rights and fairness.
Melville, an attorney at the high-powered Atlantic City law firm Cooper Levenson and president of the national NAACP Next Generation Alumni Leadership Council, was participating in the Zoom meeting when a hacker starting drawing male genitalia on the screen and using profanity while masking their voice to sound like a child.
When the moderator eliminated the profile, the hacker quickly found a way to get back in, this time escalating the attack to draw swastikas while adding the wording, “Let’s kill all of the [n-word].” In the background, there were multiple referencing to “Kill Jews.”
“I heard people gasping,” Melville said about the Zoom meeting as the attack went on. “I’ve heard about this happening before but not to this level. I think people were shocked.”
Melville said not only NAACP members were on the line, but other community groups and individuals learning more about voting by mail, so the incident was seen by a cross-section of public in South Jersey, including Hollywood actress Piper Perabo.
Spreading Virtual Hate
“I’ve talked to my colleagues around the country and they’re doing the same thing to NAACP groups, to ADL groups and others,” said Kaleem Shabazz, president of the Atlantic City NAACP and Atlantic City councilman. He was not on the Zoom meeting but learned of the incident from other members.
“They do it just to intimidate people,” he said. “Their goal is to intimidate and frighten people. We’re just going to have to get better security in the future our Zoom meetings, but they are not going to intimidate us.”
In February, Shabazz and the NAACP Atlantic City joined with Jewish Community Relations board, the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties and other organizations to host an antisemitism and Islamophobia forum at Beth El Synagogue in Margate in a proactive event. He said such ties and efforts are important to combat efforts like what happened last Thursday.
“The fact they felt it was important enough to Zoom-bomb us shows that we are being effective in bringing people together,” Shabazz said.
Shira Goodman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia, told Front Runner New Jersey.com that she thought the initial wave of so-called “Zoom-bombing” had died down since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic but such bad actors are starting to emerge again.
“In the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard from a couple of synagogues and other groups about this,” Goodman said. “Usually these guys would have to find a place to meet like in someone’s basement. Now they can find each other online and they have this echo chamber now.”
Goodman said, unfortunately, such tools as Zoom that are meant to bring people together, is being used more and more by racists, bigots and other similar groups to spread divisiveness and commit virtual hate crimes.
“I’ve heard about this happening to religious groups, other civil rights groups, LGBT groups and political forums,” Goodman said. “It is an attempt to manipulate this technology that is bringing us together to disrupt, isolate and sew division and hate. To use those symbols and words are so upsetting to the people on those calls. It’s important that they tell people about it and then take steps to prevent it.”
Lloyd Levenson, the chief executive officer of Cooper Levenson who has long been involved with the Atlantic City’s Jewish community, said he had talked with Melville about the incident and expressed his displeasure about what happened.
Energized By Divisiveness
“These individuals are energized by divisiveness,” Levenson said. “They’re hateful and jealous against anyone not like them whoever they are. Sadly, we have to live with this kind of stuff. Normally, some draws a swastika on a wall and run away.
“Now with social media, they have an opportunity to make things worse. For certain religions and group of people, [social media] gives these monsters the ability to go into a meeting and do the things that they did. All we can do is work together to limit the amount of hate in this world,” Levenson said.
Crystal Charley-Sibley, second vice president of the New Jersey State NAACP, said she believes the incident will only rally civil rights organizations instead of making them fearful to communicate through the technology.
“What took place last week left some mortified by the grotesque nature of the images, racial slurs and threats of violence toward black and Jewish people in particular,” said Charley-Sibley, who is also president of the Southern Burlington County NAACP. “It also reflected the ‘America’ of today, where hate has been emboldened. It served as a prudent example of why we cannot be deterred and why we must continue to educate, galvanize and mobilize our constituents to take part in the political process. We must exercise our right to vote.”
Alexander Bland, president of the Cape May County branch NAACP, said he was not on the call but understands in the impact something like that can have on participants.
“It’s nasty times we are living in where people think it’s funny to go out their way to spread hate on a mutual, non-partisan call where pro bono volunteers are just trying to assist people on more knowledge of mail-in ballots,” Bland said. “It lets me know that some people are still trying to silence others by racially intimidating in a way to tap emotions they know will the cause an uproar.”
Levenson said last Thursday’s incident should make people more determined to join the fight for civil rights.
“It makes you more intent to eradicating hate as much as you can,” Levenson said. “It should be an eye-opening experience that tells you we’re far from done dealing with prejudice, bigotry and hate. It should wake up the complacent.”
The ADL reported in May there were 2,107 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States in 2019, a 12 percent increase from 2018, marking it the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.
“The ignorance and hatred that’s out there doesn’t seem to go away,” Goodman said. “But there are people marching in the street march saying, ‘enough.’ That does give me some hope.”
Indeed, since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in custody of Minneapolis police, Black Lives Matter rallies have been held in small towns as well as urban areas around the country with virtually all races participating. A nationwide June 2 Civiqs poll revealed that support for Black Lives Matter reached an all-time high this month – 53 percent, from a low of 37 percent back in 2017.
Gail Hirsch Rosenthal, director of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University, called this moment in time a pivotal moment.
“I’m more optimistic than ever because issues are being spoken about now,” Rosenthal told Front Runner New Jersey. “People are joining together virtually, at rallies, they’re speaking to others. We’re becoming more sensitive to each other. I’m in a very good place, where we are educating and changing lives for the next situation. This is an important movement in history. One day you will ask, ‘Where was I?’ and ‘What did I do?’ All of us are the change.”
Getting Off Sideline
Goodman said in the short term, there are ways organizations can protect themselves on Zoom presentations and she is available to share resources to make sure that happens.
In the meantime, Melville said Zoom-bombing will not stop African-Americans, the Jewish community and others from working together for civil rights. She said it is time for action.
“I feel like we’re at a time where you can’t unseen [racism and injustice] anymore,” Melville said. “For anyone who thought we were in this post-racial period or this cultural enlightenment, we’re not there. If you’re on the sidelines, it’s time to get off of it.”
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