Unprotected Speech

White Couple Who Burned a Cross in Yard Facing Black Neighbors Investigated by FBI

FBI headquarters building is seen in Washington
FBI headquarters building is seen in Washington, U.S., Dec. 7, 2018. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

By The Associated Press

The FBI is investigating a white South Carolina couple for racial discrimination after they set a cross on fire in their yard last month facing toward their Black neighbors’ home.

Federal civil rights investigators searched the white couple’s home in Conway on Wednesday, according to FBI spokesperson Kevin Wheeler. The retired Black couple also recorded video of the cross being burned on Thanksgiving weekend and described days of repeated threats from their neighbors. The next week, Worden Evander Butler, 28, and Alexis Paige Hartnett, 27, were arrested on state charges of harassment and later released on bond.

Cross burnings in the U.S. are “symbols of hate” that are “inextricably intertwined with the history of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision written by the late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The justices ruled that the First Amendment allows bans on cross burnings only when they are intended to intimidate because the action “is a particularly virulent form of intimidation.”

The cross wasn’t on fire by the time local police officers arrived, but was still “facing and in full view of the victims’ home,” according to a Horry County Police Department report. Shawn and Monica Williams, the Black neighbors, told WMBF-TV that the burning cross was about 8 feet (2.4 meters) from their fence. They said they’re reconsidering their decision to move to the neighborhood two years ago in light of this experience.

“So now, what are we to do? Still live next to a cross-burning racist who’s threatened to cause us bodily harm?” Monica Williams told the Myrtle Beach-area broadcaster.

The Associated Press did not immediately receive responses to messages seeking comment Wednesday from a publicly available email address for Butler and a Facebook account for Hartnett. AP also called several phone numbers listed for Butler and Hartnett and received no response.

One of the white defendants was heard on police body camera footage repeatedly using a racial slur toward the Black couple, according to the police report. Butler also shared the Black couple’s address on Facebook, and posted that he was “summoning the devil’s army” and “about to make them pay,” the report said. According to an arrest warrant, Hartnett also threatened to hurt the couple.

South Carolina is one of two states in the country that does not impose additional penalties for hate crimes committed because of a victim’s race or other aspects of their identity. Monica Williams told the AP on Wednesday she hopes the episode highlights the need for hate crimes laws. In the meantime, she and her husband will “patiently wait for justice to be served.”

“The laws are needed to protect everyone against any form of hate,” she said.

The Ku Klux Klan began using “cross-lightings” in the early 20th century as part of the hate group’s rituals and as an intimidating act of terror, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The image is so synonymous with racist ideologies that tattoos of burning crosses behind klansmen are found among European white supremacists, the ADL notes.