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Man’s Struggles With Mental Illness and Addiction Preceded Hate Crimes, Friends Say

NEW YORK — After James Polite graduated from Brandeis University in May, his supporters thought his life might turn a corner.

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Jeffery C. Mays
, New York Times

NEW YORK — After James Polite graduated from Brandeis University in May, his supporters thought his life might turn a corner.

He had spent much of his childhood in foster care, living in as many as 13 homes. He struggled with mental illness and drug addiction as he tried to finish college.

Former City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn had taken Polite, 26, under her wing in 2008, getting him an internship at the council — where he worked on efforts to combat hate crimes, among other issues — and helping him apply to college.

“This is a young man I have worked with for over a decade,” Quinn said Saturday. “With all the setbacks, you hoped this would be a good turn. But the opposite happened.”

Polite was arrested Friday and charged with criminal mischief as a hate crime for writing “Die Jew Rats,” “Hitler,” “End It Now” and “Jew Better Be Ready" in marker on walls of the Union Temple of Brooklyn.

The police said surveillance video captured Polite, of Brooklyn, inside the synagogue.

He was taken into custody Friday morning at the scene of a fire that had been set inside the coat room of Yeshiva Beth Hillel, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, officials said.

Polite was charged with arson, reckless endangerment and criminal mischief — all as hate crimes — for setting fires at four other locations affiliated with the Jewish community, including another school. Police recognized Polite from the surveillance video at Union Temple.

As of Saturday afternoon, Polite was being held for psychiatric evaluation.

“I’m devastated,” Quinn said. “What James did is horrible and in some ways unforgivable.”

The vandalism at Union Temple, which came less than a week after a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people, canceled a political event that comedian Ilana Glazer planned to host. It was part of an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti in the city.

“People have a right to feel like they can worship and be safe, not fearful,” said Georgia Boothe, vice president for child welfare at the Children’s Aid Society, which has helped Polite in the past. “But I also know this man is very troubled.”

It was during a gay pride rally for Barack Obama on the steps of City Hall in 2008 where Quinn first met Polite. She offered him the internship after hearing about his story, which was featured in 2017 in a New York Times article about the Neediest Cases Fund, a yearly campaign that raises money to help social services agencies.

Polite had first been taken out of his mother’s home when he was in kindergarten. He ran away at 13 and asked the Administration for Children’s Services to place him in foster care. The agency found conditions at his home to be unsanitary and complied with his request.

Then came a string of placements. Polite eventually was placed with foster parents just before he turned 21, the year children age out of the child welfare system. He struggled with marijuana use while at Brandeis, was forced to take time off and had to enter rehabilitation and get a job. Polite learned he had bipolar disorder and was prescribed medications.

But his ability to stay on the medications was always difficult, loved ones said. He had serious psychiatric setbacks and struggled with drug use and delusions as he attempted to complete his studies.

“He was a really smart young person,” Boothe said. “He was really very determined to try and finish college, and we wanted to help him.” When he graduated in May, the hope was that Polite had figured out a path forward.

The Children’s Aid Society hosts an event at its headquarters every year at which clients who have graduated from college return to serve as “credible messengers” for children still in the system and facing struggles.

Polite was invited to speak in July. At first he was quiet and not saying much. And then Karina Melendez, who had survived cancer, her parents’ divorce, homelessness and, she said, physical abuse to graduate from Columbia University, told her story.

Polite was so moved that it compelled him to talk about his own experience. Watching him speak, Boothe said she could tell that Polite felt good about giving back. He talked about his own story of struggle and resilience.

After that speech, things began to fall apart. Polite was living in a homeless shelter at the time of his arrest, friends said. But he believed that the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security had secretly taken over the shelter system.

He had been hospitalized for psychiatric care this summer but could not be placed in inpatient treatment. Polite had been attending his outpatient care but then stopped going to that. Quinn, who customarily checked in with Polite almost every day, began hearing from him less. When she did talk to him, his speech and conversations were incoherent. That meant he was off his medications. And when Polite was not on his medications, that is when some of his ramblings turned anti-Semitic.

Speaking in general about the young people that the Children’s Aid Society works with who have a mental illness, Boothe said the stigma keeps some from taking their medications. Or, some start taking their medications, which helps to stabilize them, and then they feel as if they do not need treatment anymore.

It is a vicious cycle that she has seen time and time again.

But no one thought that Polite would do what he is accused of doing. Quinn said Polite stopped responding to her messages three weeks ago and she knew something was wrong.

“He ended up acting out violently and hatefully and I am so sorry. It’s heartbreaking,” Quinn said. “But there is no room for hate in this city.”

Asked last year about his future, Polite remained uncertain about how things would turn out.

“I’m still worried,” he said. “Life is coming at me fast.”

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