GAINES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Katie Harrington was in the kitchen baking Sunday afternoon when she overheard her 6-year-old son and the neighbor boy who’d stopped by to play.
“I heard (the words) ‘shooting people,’ and booked it over to them and grabbed the paper,” recalled Harrington, who quickly realized her son’s friend had brought in a flyer that had been left on the Harrington’s driveway.
“The boys were trying to decipher what it was and had made up a story based on the imagery. Makes me even more upset, sad that these poor kids had access to that material,” lamented Harrington, who said both children are in first grade.
The flyers were filled with antisemitic hate speech, blaming Jewish people for everything from the war in Ukraine to the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“It talked about Jews being responsible for 9/11,” said Harrington. “It made me (get) goosebumps all over and just this really disgusting feeling … I want nothing to do with any of that sentiment. Any of these conspiracy theories.”
The flyers were packaged in zip-close baggies that had been weighted down with seeds, ostensibly to keep them from flying away.
Target 8 found the flyers on driveways in at least two Caledonia-area subdivisions near 68th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue.
A Wyoming resident also reported flyers littering driveways in Chateau Estates off Burlingame Avenue.
A Ring doorbell camera in a subdivision off 76th Street captured the baggies being flung onto driveways around 1:30 Sunday afternoon from a beige Dodge Caravan as it drove through Gaines Township subdivisions, including Crystal Springs.
One flyer — there were several versions — had the anti-Biden chant, ‘let’s go Brandon’ in bold-face as the headline and claimed “every single aspect of the Biden administration is Jewish.”
The flyers pushed readers to the website of a group called Goyim Defense League, which is known nationwide by agencies that monitor hate groups.
“This group is a loose network of individuals, connected by their virulent antisemitism,” said Carolyn Normandin, regional director with the Anti-Defamation League in Michigan. “It includes five or six primary organizers and many, many supporters. Thousands of online followers. This group operates a video platform that streams antisemitic content. Really, the only reason that they’re in existence is just to hassle and harass the Jewish community.”
Normandin said the organization’s most “zealous and visible actors” began activities in Arizona, California and Florida before moving on to New York, South Carolina and Texas.
She said ADL first noted the group’s presence in Michigan in Spring 2022.
She described the network as “very, very active” in the Great Lake state.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s, Normandin said the organization, whose name she will not use, drove Michigan highways and dropped flyers at gas pumps.
“I don’t mention their name on purpose because I’m not going to be part of that propaganda machine,” explained Normandin.
‘DON’T BELIEVE THIS GARBAGE’
“These antisemitic flyers blame the Jewish community for everything, starting COVID, owning banks, starting every major ill that the world has seen,” said Normandin. “It’s like an insidious cancer that’s being pushed on to people.”
Normandin said the group’s stunts include hanging offensive banners from highway overpasses and targeting Jews on the street.
“They pull people’s head coverings off, or go up to their cars and ask ridiculous questions just to harass people,” she said.
Normandin said the country’s political divide and widespread dependence on social media has helped the group increase its profile.
“What we’ve seen in the last several years is a rise in antisemitism, and so this group in particular is trying to foment antisemitism through conspiracy theory, and that’s what concerns me the most,” explained Normandin.
“The most important thing, ‘don’t believe this garbage,'” implored Normandin. “Nobody that I know, that really has something great to say, is using a Ziploc baggie filled with rice or beans and a little sheet of paper to disseminate that message.”
She urges people to report “paperings” to law enforcement and the Anti-Defamation League.
In a statement, Rabbi Michael Shadick of Temple Emmanuel in Grand Rapids expressed disappointment about the flyers but also said he knew the people of West Michigan to be kind and loving.
“I believe the vast majority of our neighbors who live in Caledonia and West Michigan are kind and generous people. Many are faithful Christians who believe in extending goodwill toward all humankind. What a shame it is that a very few seek to peddle hate. They only stain and embarrass themselves by their behavior. The Jewish community will always respond to such unbridled hatred with acts of love.”Rabbi Michael Schadick
755% INCREASE IN HATE GROUP ‘FLYERING’ SINCE 2018
Southern Poverty Law Center says the group behind the flyers is an antisemitic hate group.
The center, which tracks hate group ‘flyering,’ says Michigan has seen more incidents since 2018 than other Midwest states, with almost 600 incidents since that year. Most of the incidents were in the Metro Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids areas.
The state has seen a 755% increase in ‘flyering’ since 2018, the center said. In 2018, Michigan saw 38 incidents and in 2021, the state saw 160 incidents. Last year, the number of incidents jumped to 325.
The majority of flyering comes from a separate white nationalist hate group. Southern Poverty Law Center said it has started tracking flyers from the group behind the Caledonia-area flyers this year, and will add the group’s activity to its Hate Group Flyering Map in May.
KENT COUNTY SHERIFF IDENTIFIED “PERSON INVOLVED”
The Kent County Sheriff’s Department said several residents reported the flyers, and deputies have been able to track down an individual they described only as the “person involved.”
Sgt. Eric Brunner, public information officer with the sheriff’s department, said he could not reveal if the person was local.
Normandin of the ADL said those distributing the flyers are often outsiders, brought in from other areas.
Brunner said the sheriff’s department is exploring whether the group’s actions constitute littering.
“It’s a concern. Obviously, (neighbors are) speaking out because they’re bothered by it. So we have to look and see, ‘is this something that’s threatening in nature? Is this protected free speech?'” explained Brunner. “However, people don’t want to receive these materials. So there’s a fine balance of protected speech, hate speech and how is that material being distributed? Someone throwing paper into our yard or our driveway that we didn’t sign up for, a lot of people would see that as littering.”
According to media reports, other jurisdictions across the country have tried to cite the group for littering too.
Brunner said ethnic intimidation charges require a “direct, credible threat to a person or property.”
While the flyers are offensive, they do not make direct threats.
‘I HAD MY HUSBAND BURN IT’
Katie Harrington had her husband put the flyer in the recycling bin but soon decided that wasn’t enough.
“I ended up having my husband burn it, the piece of paper. I just don’t want to associate with any of that rhetoric or narrative, in this neighborhood or anywhere in this country. It’s disgusting, and it made me feel so uncomfortable to have that in my home, around my children,” she said.