Danbury shooting puts spotlight on intolerance, white supremacy
DANBURY - When he died, Paul Arbitelle’s body was marked with swastikas, a “white power” tattoo and bullet holes.
The fatal shooting by police of the armed man with racist tattoos may not signal that white supremacy is gaining ground, experts say, but that racists feel empowered by the gains hate-speak has made in the mainstream.
“We’ve been tracking hate groups and we’re not seeing a huge increase in the amount of people committing hate crimes,” says Andy Friedland, the associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut chapter. “But certainly, they feel a lot more confident that now is the time to act.”
While it’s not clear what motivated Arbitelle on Dec. 29, when police said he came at officers with a knife, the 45-year-old Danbury man’s beliefs apparently ran deeper than his racist and Nazi tattoos.
A police report about the night Arbitelle attacked a black man in 2011 throws light on the darkest side of Arbitelle’s criminal life, when he told police three times he wanted to “kill that n ****r.”
And although it appears that Arbitelle was never part of a recognized hate group, his story is a cautionary tale about how racism can terrorize a community, even if it isn’t organized.
“We have to take every opportunity to deal with it on a small and immediate level and stifle it before it can solidify into inner hatred,” said Glenda Armstrong, the president of the Greater Danbury NAACP. She noted that a whole community suffered in 2015 when a white supremacist killed nine black church members in Charleston, S.C. “If we don’t, people who are the extremists think it’s okay.”
Headlines about Arbitelle’s death come at a time of heightened awareness in western Connecticut and across the country about the rise of white nationalism, especially in the two years since Donald Trump has been president.
Although the state has had its share of racist incidents and white supremacist messaging over that time -- from swastika vandalism in Danbury to white supremacist flyers in Wilton and Norwalk - Connecticut has not seen the rise in hate crimes reported by the FBI elsewhere in the country.
Even so, Connecticut has more history with white supremacy than one might expect from a small New England state - including being home to the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, James Farrands of Shelton, during the mid-1980s.
How much insight a state police report will provide about Arbitelle’s last night is unclear. The primary purpose of the investigation by the state police Western District Major Crimes Squad, now entering its fourth week, is to determine whether the police officer who fired the deadly rounds, Alex Relyea, or his partner, Regina Guss, committed a crime.
Police have already said the two decorated cops acted in self-defense. Relyea also inadvertently shot Arbitelle’s 74-year-old mother, Linda Arbitelle, who is recovering at home after two weeks in the hospital.
The Arbitelle family has not spoken publicly since the shooting, except to say that the mother is suing Danbury for damages.
Like a disease
The night Paul Arbitelle attacked a black man in Danbury nearly eight years ago highlightss a troubled life of crime, marred by hate.
Witnesses said Arbitelle crossed the street on a snowy Saturday night in February and asked a young black man who was talking on his cell phone “Are you talking to me?”
Arbitelle punched the man in the face.
By the time police arrived the victim had retreated into a friend’s house, and Arbitelle was yelling, “F-k you, n-g, I will f-k kill you,” according to a police report reviewed by The News-Times. Arbitelle then told police that he was going to “Kill that n-g.”
The police report says “Arbitelle was screaming that he could not believe white people were treating him this way and that we should go arrest” the black man he attacked.
In the conclusion of the report, police said “Arbitelle has several tattoos and clearly expressed his beliefs in ‘white power.’”
A Greenwich psychotherapist who has studied white supremacy for three decades likens racial hate to an addiction disease.
“Racism is a dysfunctional way of processing feelings about yourself and the rest of the world, where you work from a concept that you are superior because you are white,” said Sandra Eagle. “And when life doesn’t conform to the concept, you blame other people and you never learn anything.”
White supremacy made national headlines again last week when Iowa Rep. Steve King had his committee assignments stripped by GOP leaders because of his controversial comments about race.
Trump was at the center of another controversy in 2017, when he said there were some “very fine people on both sides” when violence broke out between white nationalists and protestors in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Advocates and activists say there is a link between divisive rhetoric in Washington, D.C. and acts of bias in Connecticut.
Over the last two years, for example, swastikas have vandalized property in Danbury, Ridgefield, Stratford, Greenwich, Stamford and New Milford. White supremacist flyers have been left in Wilton, Norwalk and Westport.
But well before Trump became president, Danbury was making national headlines for the wrong reasons over GOP Mayor Mark Boughton’s hardline on illegal immigration, including a 2007 incident when city police officers posing as employers lured 11 undocumented laborers into a van and turned them over to immigration officials.
At the same time, although Connecticut is not immune to the racism and white supremacist extremism that has grown up with America, there are no substantial or active hate groups organizing activity here, police and national watchdog groups say.
Instead, over the last generation, white supremacist supporters in Connecticut have moved away from explicit displays of hate to extremist groups that identify with mainstream conservative causes, the ADL says.
For example, Litchfield’s Peter Brimelow runs a website that serves as a platform for white nationalists called Vdare.com.
Brimelow, who describes himself as an anti-immigration “racial nationalist,” was last in the headlines in August when he attended a party for President Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow of Redding.
“No one person is responsible for the rise in hate crimes, but words have consequences,” said the ADL’s Friedland. “It is time for all of our responsible leaders to step forward and denounce this clearly and openly.”