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    Brian Levin, Cal State San Bernardino expert on extremism and hate, retires
    • October 10, 2023

    After nearly a quarter century of leading Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, founding director Brian Levin decided it was time to step down.

    “Right now, things are very upsetting, which is how I knew it was time to go,” he said.

    He’s been studying extremism for years, and the tide of hatred and intolerance keeps rising.

    “What’s frustrating now is how mainstream bigotry has become,” he said. “Now the hate is an a la carte system. You don’t have to belong to a big hate group or even a hate group at all. The number of hate groups, according to the (Southern Poverty Law Center) actually went down, because people are freelancing.”

    In August, the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism released the final report supervised by Levin, showing large increases in reported hate crimes against the LGBTQ community in 42 major American cities. Hate crimes jumped 10% in 2022 in the cities surveyed and by 17% in an analysis of 16 states. In the largest 10 cities, hate crimes went up an average of 22% in 2022, the second record year in a row, the report showed.

    According to the survey, the largest increases in hate crimes were targeted against those of “other race/ethnicity,” which was up 94%; followed by anti-LGBTQ hatred, which was up 52%; anti-gender non-conforming people (including those in drag), which was up 47%; anti-Jewish hate, which was up 29%; and anti-transgender hate, which was up 28%.

    Following his ‘north star’

    Levin took a roundabout path to becoming one of the nation’s foremost experts on hate and extremism.

    “There was no playbook to having a career doing this,” he said.

    Levin grew up in New York City.

    His father was a Jewish Army medic who survived almost a year in a Nazi prison camp during World War II before going on to become New York City’s chief veterinarian. His mother was an NYPD officer.

    Between the two of them, they gave Levin what he calls his “north star:” “Go help where you can help,” Levin said.

    Levin became an NYPD police officer himself. As a law school student at Stanford, he created what became the first-ever hate crimes training material for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which sets the standards for police training in California.

    Months after leaving law school, Levin wrote his first legal brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case. His brief, in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, argued that that courts have the legal right to punish more harshly those criminals who selected their victims based on criteria such as race, backing up his argument that hate crimes cause greater harm to both societies and their victims. The court’s 1993 decision became the basis for most of today’s hate crime laws.

    Levin then monitored extremist groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center before landing at CSUSB, where he taught criminal justice and helped create the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in 1999.

    “I always thought I was adhering to my north star,” Levin said.

    Neither police officer nor doctor, as his father had wanted him to be, Levin said he believes he still stayed in the family business.

    “Different box, but same cereal,” he said. “Public service.”

    Over the years, CSUSB’s center has produced detailed reports that help policymakers, law enforcement agencies, the media and others understand the nature and scope of hate and extremism.

    In 2016, he famously shielded Ku Klux Klan members from being badly beaten and assaulted by counter-protestors at an anti-immigration rally in Anaheim.

    “I get a lot of questions about saving the Klan guy. I’d do it again in a second,” Levin said. Reversing the growing waves of hate and violence is critical, he said.

    “America is such a gift to the world that if we don’t turn this around, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves.”

    ‘A gem of a human being’

    Those who know or have worked with Levin have great praise for him.

    “Brian’s been such a thoughtful advocate at the center, always leading with ideas and policies that keep the Inland Empire safe and have an eye toward our country,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-San Bernardino. “We’re going to miss him locally, but I’m hoping that I can continue to rely on him personally for advice along the way.”

    Cal State San Bernardino president Tomas Morales praised Levin’s contributions to the scholarly understanding of prejudice, hate and extremism.

    “His research through the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism translated to practical policy for lawmakers to understand and attack extremism,” Morales wrote in an emailed statement. “And he also used that knowledge to be a voice to call out bigotry against individuals and communities who have been marginalized.”

    Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who previously infiltrated hate groups as an undercover FBI agent, said “it seems like I’ve known Brian for my entire professional career.”

    “He’s known for the research and advocacy work he’s done at the Southern Poverty Law Center, but he comes at it from a law enforcement perspective, coming from an NYPD background,” German said. “And he’s a gem of a human being.”

    According to Ann Noel, president of the California Association of Human Rights Organizations, Levin’s shoes will be tough to fill.

    “I’ve always found his knowledge about the issue and sense of how big of a problem it is, and where the problem is, and who can fight the problem to be extraordinary,” she said. “He comes with a lot of experience and a lot of credibility, and I think that’s going to be very hard to replicate.”

    ‘Fine without me’

    But after 24 years leading the center, and 38 years in public service, Levin said he’s in a “different place now” and that it is time to go.

    “I’m much more personally affected now,” he said. “We’re not going to solve this violent, vile bigotry on my watch.”

    And the accumulation of studying hate and extremism on a daily basis has beaten him down, Levin said.

    “It’s eroded me to a point where I can’t teach and do this stuff,” he said.

    Although Levin has retired from teaching and his work at the center, he will continue to serve on the California Commission on the State of Hate, which Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to last year.

    And he’s confident the center is in good hands.

    “This place is going to be just fine without me,” Levin said. “They’ve got a knockout international team. … That’s what gives me a lot of hope.”

    Steven Merrall is the new director of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. (Photo by Beau Yarbrough, San Bernardino Sun/SCNG)

    The center’s new British-born director is Steven Merrall, who also teaches criminal law and policy classes at CSUSB. He hopes to make the center’s data even more accessible.

    “The way I know how to provide support (to hate crime victims) is through research, it’s through analysis,” he said. “If we don’t have the numbers, and if we don’t have the interpretation of those numbers that’s made available to a wide range of people, then this stuff disappears.”

    Levin has been the “episodic” target of hate mail and other threats due to his work combatting hate speech and Merrall has seen the dangers of intolerance close to home. He lives in Cedar Glen and his family knew Lauri Carleton, the shop owner who was shot and killed in August during a confrontation over the LGBTQ pride flag she had hanging outside her store.

    “I’m not going to be bullied,” Merrall said. “So yes, it’s a concern, because it is a reality, unfortunately, and extremism by its nature, is dangerous.”

    And the work is not getting any less important.

    “We’ve been in an interesting sort of political period, to be diplomatic,” Merrall said. “We’ve seen marginalized sorts of communities vilified for political purposes. And it’s not new. This is as old as the hills — thousands of years, thousands of years of this. But we’ve seen a significant sort of increase in the type of language that is designed to be inflammatory. It is designed to identify and blame, which is extremely problematic.”

    He expects the center’s work to be even more important as the 2024 presidential election approaches.

    “In the presidential election years, since ’92 onwards, where we’ve had the data, every presidential election year there’s an increase in hate crimes,” Merrall said. “We’ve seen marginalized groups identified, vilified and used to divide. And I don’t know that anything is going to be any different (next) year.”

    Handing off the baton

    One success Levin sees in the fight against hatred and extremism: The center he founded is no longer the only or even main resource taking the study of extremism seriously.

    “Now when something terrible happens, I’m glad when (policymakers and journalists) also call other people,” he said.

    He hopes to see more such centers opening around the United States.

    “When you’re a young person, you want to drive the car,” Levin said. “Now, I want to give out the keys to 1,000 cars.”

    More about hate and extremism

    San Bernardino mass shooters: Why did they do it?
    Hate crimes in major U.S. cities increased 9% in 2018, new report shows
    FBI arrests Boogaloo extremist group member in Pomona after gun sales meeting in Murrieta
    Newsom makes appointments to new anti-hate crime commission
    Killing of business owner over pride flag shocks LGBTQ community, Cedar Glen residents

    ​ Orange County Register