Internal Strife Dismantles Illinois Hate-Crimes Panel

Five Jewish members of Illinois' hate-crimes commission have resigned in protest over another commissioner who is an official with the Nation of Islam. Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, rails against Jewish and gay people this week in front of commissioners. Chicago Public Radio's Catrin Einhorn reports.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Illinois, five people have resigned from the state's commission on discrimination and hate-crimes. The five, all Jews, quit to protest the inclusion of a member who's a key aid to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Sister Claudette Murray Muhammad is the chief of Protocol for the Nation of Islam, and she has refused to distance herself from remarks made last month by Minister Farrakhan. Those remarks criticized homosexuals and some Jews.

Mr. LOUIS FARRAKHAN (Nation of Islam leader): Muslims are in a struggle to submit. Christians are in a struggle to discipline themselves to the way of Jesus Christ. And Jews have that same struggle, but there are Jews that ain't struggling at all. These are the Hollywood Jews, who say they are Jews but they are not.

BLOCK: Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has been largely quiet about the situation, but at an event earlier today, he responded to reporters' questions about the state of the commission.

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Illinois): Over the last couple of days, I've initiated a process to begin a meaningful dialogue between leaders of the Jewish community, the African American community and the gay community. And I'm gonna ask them for recommendations that they may have over ways that they can help bring all of these communities together. And I personally am going to oversee that process.

BLOCK: Joining me now is Catrin Einhorn. She's from Chicago Public Radio and she's been covering this controversy. Catrin, first of all, tell us about this commission. What's its purpose?

CATRIN EINHORN reporting:

You know, not a lot of people even knew about this commission until this recent scandal. It was started by the former governor, and basically the idea is to train law enforcement officials in recognizing and how to deal with hate-crimes. You know, they would go into schools and open up dialogue where there were problems, tension around homosexuality or race. They would go into towns all across Illinois and do the same thing.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed Sister Claudette Murray Muhammad to this commission in August 2005, and sort of resuscitated it then. So it's new and they sort of have been planning their strategies to go ahead.

BLOCK: And how did this controversy start? Were the members protesting Sister Claudette Murray Muhammad's inclusion before Minister Farrakhan made these remarks?

EINHORN: There was some discomfort with it, but it kind of heated up when she invited all of them to a speech that Farrakhan gave last month. So she invited the commissioners and a commissioner from the Anti-Defamation League was concerned about that and was talking to the Governor about that. They went to the speech, Farrakhan made the remarks that we just heard, and it's all heated up from there.

BLOCK: And what has Sister Claudette Murray Muhammad said in her defense since this cascade of resignations began?

EINHORN: She hasn't said a lot. She kept quiet for a long time, you know, even though, pretty immediately, the Sun Times, the local paper, wrote an editorial calling her to come out and distance herself, say what she thought about Farrakhan's remarks. She didn't say anything, and then a couple days ago she went on a radio show and said that the criticism that she was taking for this was just ridiculous, that she shouldn't have to apologize for Farrakhan's remarks, and people are really defending her record as someone who has spent her life working against hate-crimes and working against discrimination.

BLOCK: And I imagine, since this is a commission that's appointed by the Governor, that there's going to be quite a bit of political fallout here.

EINHORN: The Governor has taken quite a lot of heat on this. You know, it's an election year in Illinois, he's up for reelection this year. We have a primary coming up on March 21st, and just last night the Republican candidates in the primary were just blasting him for the way that he's dealt with this whole controversy.

BLOCK: And any move to replace those five open seats now?

EINHORN: What happened is a week ago, two commissioners resigned. The Governor appointed one person to take one of those slots the next day, but then that person and another one resigned. And then yesterday the fifth one has resigned. There, at this point, there's no word on what's going to happen with those positions.

BLOCK: Catrin, thanks so much.

EINHORN: Thank you, Michele.

BLOCK: Catrin Einhorn is with Chicago Public Radio.

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