Opinion: Former Chattanooga mayor’s Council Against Hate bizarrely linked to current activities of Southern Poverty Law Center

Staff File Photo / Former Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks during a Council Against Hate meeting at The Camp House on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

Millions of conservatives across the country abhor being called racists by Democrats and their media friends because of the actions of members of some far right-wing groups.

We were surprised then by a similar guilt-by-association post on a right-wing news site recently that conflated some conversations members of former Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's administration had with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) with the SPLC's recent inclusion of conservative and Christian nonprofit groups on its "hate map."

The Daily Signal, from documents obtained through the Tennessee Open Records Act detailing the administration's 2018, 2019 and 2020 conversations with the SPLC, seemed to imply the city still must be associating with the SPLC, which has seen its relevance wane after a 2019 racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal and the ridicule it received this year by placing Christian groups alongside the Ku Klux Klan on its "hate map."

The headline on the news site's story was: "Chattanooga Mayor's 'Hate' Council Strategized with Far-Left Group Demonizing Moms for Liberty."

However, the term-limited Berke left office in 2021, and his chief of staff who initiated some of the conversations with the SPLC, Kerry Hayes, has started his own communications strategy business.

Kevin Roig, senior adviser for public affairs for current Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said the former mayor's Council Against Hate "hasn't been active" and "is not not functioning under the Kelly administration."

The Daily Signal's story reminds us of the question asked of movie-industry professionals in 1947 during the House Committee on Un-American Activities: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?"

Whether it's Democrats calling all conservatives racists, or Republicans accusing all Democrats of being soft on crime, such rhetoric only succeeds in falsely inflaming passions and making it more difficult to find common ground.

The scenario the Daily Signal lays out alleges Berke created the Council Against Hate in 2018 following the July 2015 shooting of five military service members by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who was thought to be inspired by what the FBI called "foreign terrorist organization propaganda."

"A city of creators will find new ways to combat hatred, especially when it leads to violence and tears apart the social fabric of our community," Berke said in announcing the Council Against Hate. "After July 16, 2015, our city was held up as a model of how to respond to terrorism. We can also be a model of how to stop the hate that inspires it in the first place."

But the Daily Signal seems to suggest the administration must have pivoted from what many called the hate of radical Islamist ideology to the focus by the SPLC on "hard-right extremists."

The documents the news site obtained said the Council Against Hate hosted meetings with SPLC staff on Aug. 28, 2018, and July 16, Aug. 19 and Oct. 22, 2020, the latter three of which came after downtown riots following the May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The 2018 conference call description read: "As a reminder, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's Council Against Hate would like to hear more about the work of the SPLC, as well as any trends or statistics in hate crime and/or hate speech that the SPLC is observing that might be relevant to the work of the Mayor's Council Against Hate. Any advice and guidance the SPLC could provide to help the Council craft its priorities and areas of focus would be greatly appreciated."

A 2019 report by the Council Against Hate, the members of which were nearly all Democrats or supporters of left-wing causes, outlined eight strategies, including: changing public policy to protect "targeted constituencies from hate crimes and violent extremism"; defining the problem of "hate"; engaging "young people in combating hate"; working with schools to lead students away from "hate and extremist behavior"; encouraging businesses to combat "hate"; and developing a "rapid response" committee to promote "media literacy" around "hate speech and radicalization."

A 2019 podcast Hayes conducted with a member of the SPLC staff discussed, according to the obtained documents, "white supremacy," "anti-LGBTQ policies," "the white nationalist movement" and Stephen Miller, an aide to then-President Donald Trump.

The article in the Daily Signal was later picked up by the Tennessee Star and the Tennessee Conservative, both right-wing news sites. None of the three connected anything the Council Against Hate may have picked up from the SPLC with any policy change, anything the city is still doing and anything remotely associated with the Moms for Liberty organization cited in the headline.

We're no fans of the SPLC and have called it out frequently for its false equivalence, but now these conservative websites have done the same thing. We don't believe members of the Kelly administration are losing sleep over the allegations but nevertheless believe they need to be called out.