MADISON, Wis. - As law enforcement agencies investigate two recent mass shootings as possible hate crimes, an area group is committed to overcoming that hate.
A manifesto that was found online allegedly written by the El Paso shooter points to a possible racial motivation for the attack, and right before the shooting in California, the gunman posted a reference from an author with white nationalist views.
"This is so bad that it's happening so much, almost daily type of situation,” Masood Akhtar said. “It’s heartbreaking.
In a country reeling from back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio over the weekend in a year with more than 250 mass shootings so far, the question becomes, 'What can we do?” The conversation is taking place as this state acknowledges the seventh anniversary of the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek.
"So it's happened in Wisconsin. So we can't pretend that this is something that only happens in Texas or other places across the country,” Gov. Tony Evers said.
Here at home, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group is looking for solutions. Akhtar founded the movement We Are Many -- United Against Hate three years ago.
"We believe a lot of things you are seeing are because of fear, hate and confusion," Akhtar said.
Akhtar said the group supports amending laws to allow the federal government to more easily charge shooters with domestic terrorism and is pushing for a bipartisan resolution strongly condemning all sorts of hate.
"Hate is not a Republican issue. It's not a Democrat issue,” he said. “It's a human issue. Lives are being lost for no reason.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks what it considers more than 1,600 hate groups nationally. According to the center, Wisconsin has 15, including those classified as anti-Muslim, white nationalist, black nationalist and neo-Nazi.
Two of those groups are based in the Madison region. One of them is Radio Wehrwolf, out of Fitchburg, which is categorized as a neo-Nazi group. It’s unclear if the group's podcast is still active.
The other group is the Pilgrims Covenant Church in Monroe, which is listed by the site for being anti-LGBT, meaning the SPLC believes it demonizes people in that community.
"I think it's dangerous to accuse everyone of hating because you have a different opinion from that person or organization,” the church’s pastor, Ralph Ovadal, said.
Ovadal said that, while the church has taken a stance against homosexuality, that isn't its main focus, and he isn't sure what sets his church apart from others preaching similar views.
“It’s very hard for our church, families and just good, hardworking, honest people, Christian people, to be stuck in with Nazis, white supremacists and other groups that truly do hate, and some even call for violence,” he said. “It's just hard to be in with them, especially my background is my dad in World War II was in three different Nazi prison camps."
For Akhtar, hate is hate and must be addressed.
"Engagement is so critical,” he said.
He said that means addressing economic insecurity and teaching Americans that others aren't so different.
Akhtar recently started Empowering Students for Success, a nonprofit that provides interest-free loans to college students from low- and mid-income families. He said the program, which sets students up with mentors from diverse backgrounds, is just one strategy that can bring people together.
"People are not born with hate. People are taught to hate,” Akhtar said. “If they can be taught to hate, it's easy to teach them how to love."
He said he's confident the people of this country can do that.
"Get involved. Make phone calls. Tell people this is not acceptable, and make those changes,” Akhtar said. “This is the only way we can do it."
He hopes We Are Many -- United Against Hate can expand to a national scale.
Get your weather forecast from people who actually live in your community. We update with short, easy-to-use video forecasts you can watch on your phone every day. Download the iOS or Android app here.
- Firefighters responding to structure fire on Russett Road
- Middleton man arrested on sixth drunken driving charge
- Verona Parks Board approves Jesus Lunch event
- DeForest man charged with 5 counts of receiving child pornography
- Second Harvest Foodbank receives grant for Beloit school pantry
- Madison man accused of producing child porn using a cellphone, authorities say