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As the longtime director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino and a former NYPD officer and legal counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Brian Levin has dedicated his professional career to fighting criminal bigotry and the fools behind it.
So you would suspect Orange County, with its bevy of hate groups, extremists and general wackos, to be a veritable motherlode for him to mine and decry. But Levin (who politely declines to reveal the exact whereabouts of his county home lest white supremacists try to track him down—again) has hope that a place that attracts so many disparate bigots—most hilarious examples being the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review and the anti-immigrant California Coalition for Immigration Reform—is finally getting over its notorious national reputation.
“The hate groups, they’re here, but unlike perhaps in the past, I don’t think anyone can say they define the county,” says Levin. “The hate groups may affect us, and we have to combat them, but they don’t define us.”
Levin does a bit of everything to combat hate: He’s a constant presence on cable and radio shows and a reliable interviewee for newspapers across the country. But more than a mere notable quotable, Levin also does the dirty work. He spent most of the past summer in the nation’s capital, meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder about cold hate-crime cases, advocating for the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act (which would expand hate-crime definitions to include crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals) and also trying to get similar protection for the homeless.
Levin also opposes censorship. “If a hatemonger wants to come to a campus, let him speak,” he says, “but let people come to denounce it.”
And he doesn’t denounce conservatism itself. “There are deep political differences among people of goodwill,” Levin says, “and a lot of people are surprised that we [at the center] don’t get involved in left-wing issues, per se. I end up getting both hugs and hurls from across the spectrum.”
The road to fighting bigotry began at home with Levin’s father, a Jewish POW who narrowly avoided death at the hands of Nazis. “He never really talked about it and was always conflicted about what I did,” Levin says. “He was always saying, ‘Keep your head down’ because that’s what saved him.”
Levin also credits studying under Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. (one of the country’s first African-American federal judges) and a police-academy instructor with shaping his philosophy. “The instructor once told me, ‘Courage is when King Christian X of Denmark was ordered to turn over the Jews, and he was the first person to turn himself in.’ The story is apocryphal, but it resonated with me.”
Levin is expanding his horizons despite an already-hectic schedule. He’s building the center’s website to become an online repository of hate, so people better know how to fight it. He also maintains a blog and recently began writing for the Huffington Post. Despite all the hate, though, Levin’s icon of OC is The Diversity.
“In terms of politics, religion, ethnicity and education, I love it,” he says. “This is not your grandfather’s Orange County.”