In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student perceived as gay, was severely beaten, tied to a fence and left in a coma to die by his attackers. That same year, James Byrd, a black-American, was beaten, stripped naked and dragged three miles tied to a truck. Both crimes were motivated by hate, bias and intolerance, but no hate crime laws existed in either state.
Some states have enacted criminal sentence enhancement provisions for “hate crimes” while Congress turned its back on civil rights and waited years to enact legislation while debating whether hate crimes exist.
On October 28, 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd legislation expanded the legal definition of hate crime to include attacks based on sexual orientation. The bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama, but Congressman Brian Bilbray failed to take a leadership role and voted “no” on this historic civil rights legislation.
A hate crime occurs when the perpetrator selects the victim because of the person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. As a society, we cannot tolerate hate crimes that intimidate and put a whole class of people in fear. Now the Justice Department can aid state and local authorities investigating reported hate crimes when local authorities choose not to pursue a civil rights investigation.
In 2007, the FBI reported that there were 7,624 hate crime incidents. The hate crime expansion of the protected class to sexual orientation is especially important. Over the past 10 years, there have been reports of 12,000 hate crimes based on sexual orientation.
Recently, members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., brought their road show to San Diego to target gays and Jewish people at several locations. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies Westboro, with about 80 members, as a “hate group.” Westboro has picketed funerals of returning soldiers killed in Iraq “thanking God” for the soldiers’ deaths because Westboro perceives them as contributing to America’s “fag-enabling” actions.
There is a fine-line distinction between “free speech” and hate speech designed to incite violence against people. As the economic times get harsher, Latinos are also becoming easy targets for hate crimes as extremists grow their ranks through the Internet and talk radio.
In order to prevent crimes like the Shepard and Byrd murders, communities and religious organizations should work together to educate the public about tolerance through open dialogue and through public forums. Law enforcement agencies should partner with community organizations to initiate programs to prevent hate crimes and incidents. A good resource is the “Not in our Town” curriculum from PBS.org which is used by hundreds of other religious and community-based groups across the nation.
We must protect people’s civil rights and stop acts of violence based upon race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. An attack based on hatred and bias strikes at the heart of our communities. Creating fear and distrust strikes at the soul of liberty.
Tracy Emblem is an attorney and a democratic candidate who is running for U.S. Congress, in California’s 50th District in 2010.