A white man in Mississippi has been charged with a federal hate crime and arson violations after he allegedly set a cross a blaze in his front yard to try to intimidate a Black family.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Axel C. Cox was charged with one count of criminal interference with the right to fair housing and one count of using fire to commit a federal felony.
Court documents allege that 23-year-old Cox threatened, intimidated, and interfered with a Black family’s enjoyment of their housing rights. The indictment claims that Cox burned a cross in his front yard, and used threatening and racially derogatory remarks toward his Black neighbors. He also allegedly chose to burn the cross because of the victims’ race.
If Cox is convicted he faces up to 10 years in prison for interfering with the victims’ housing rights and a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison, consecutive to any other sentence, for using fire to commit a federal felony. He could also get hit with a hefty fine of up to $250,000 for each charge.
Federal prosecutors told NPR that when Cox burned the cross to threaten and intimidate his Black neighbors, he violated the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination against a person’s housing rights based on the individual’s race, religion, national origin, sex, or family status.
“The way hate crimes occur and how they are occurring in our community doesn’t look the exact same as it did many decades ago. But the impact is the same,” Rachel Carroll Rivas of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, told NPR. “Still today, this is unfortunately neither a new problem nor a problem that has gone away completely.”
Cross-burnings in the U.S. are synonymous with the Klu Klux Klan. The terror organization has been using the fiery cross as a hate symbol and intimidation tactic since the early 1900s.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, cross-burnings, also called “cross-lightings” by Ku Klux Klan groups to make it seem as if they are not destroying a Christian cross, have long been used as a traditional symbol by Klan groups, used both in Klan rituals as well as in attempts to intimidate and terrorize victims of Klan groups.
According to an FBI report, more than 7,700 criminal hate crime incidents were reported in 2020, an increase of about 450 incidents over 2019.