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September, 2000, Volume 8 Nr. 1, Issue 85,


by JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

Some of the best coalition building in the history of the civil rights movement has been in the last few years. The catalyst and rallying point is hate crime legislation. Finally, the large, established civil rights organizations, such as the Anti- Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, are coalescing around the need for effective societal response to the increasing problem of hate crimes, with a huge campaign for the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA).

Then why am I so chilled?

The cry for something to be done is real. It is born of fear, anger and the knowledge that those of us who are attacked because we are gay (or Black or Latino/a or disabled or female or Jewish…) are often targeted as a group even as we are assaulted as individuals. I, too, cry out for effective response, but I am skeptical that legislation is the best focus, and I am certain the current crop of hate crimes laws are not.

The cornerstone of these laws is sentencing enhancement. This means that if a crime is committed (graffiti, vandalism, assault, manslaughter, murder) and it is established that that the victim was chosen as a member of a target group, judges and prosecutors may, or must, increase the sentence of the offender. Sentencing enhancements are said to be appropriate because hate crimes have many victims—the rest of a terrorized community--therefore deserve harsher penalties.

Also there is a perceived value in the symbolic factor: these laws send a message to the entire society that prejudice is abhorred, that we value tolerance and diversity. But this is symbolism with cynicism. It is convenient for politicians to support such laws, to appear to care about marginalized people. But if actual concern were equal to the rhetoric, why not more substantial laws, that would make a real difference in our lives? Why have HCPA but watch ENDA and ERA languish or die? Why do we have to fight so hard for livable income, prescription drug fairness and the right to marry? Why can’t we get such basic rights? How about funding for community centers, safe spaces, restorative justice, universal design?

Part of the campaign is to add sexual orientation, disability and gender to existing statutes that already name race, religion and ethnicity. I don’t think adding categories makes a bad law good, but the efforts toward inclusiveness can extend to other organizing. Hate crimes laws are a feel-good coalition builder at best. They can be a divisive distraction as groups argue a hierarchy of oppressions, and, at worst, will exacerbate the very thing they are meant to alleviate.

Adding time to already shockingly punitive sentences is answering brutality with brutality. What better place to learn racism, sexism and homophobia than in a U.S. jail or prison? The human cages in this country are so horrific that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have targeted them with anti-torture campaigns. We have the world record number of people in cages, and with 12 million incarcerated each year, there are hundreds of thousands released each month. Many of them have been so regressed and damaged by this cruel system that they are far more dangerous than when they went in. Post-traumatic stress disorder is epidemic among cons and ex-cons, much of it because of serial rape.

We must not dehumanize those who dehumanize us. To picture hate crimes offenders as monsters and predators makes it easier to lock them away. But these are our fellow citizens: our neighbors, co-workers, family members. If a young man is imprisoned for breaking your windows and painting "Kill Fags" on the walls, does the punishment fit the crime? He is likely to be raped, not once but several times a week through his entire sentence. He may lose his right to vote, permanently. (Vermont does not strip prisoners or ex-cons of the franchise, but many states do.)

He will be caged and brutalized for months or years in this misnamed "corrections" system. And then, if he hasn’t killed himself, he will be released. Does this make anyone safer?

Vengeance does not equal justice. To stereotype "white trash boys like Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson" (Matthew Shepherd’s killers), or "redneck racists like John William King" (James Byrd’s killer) is to continue the violence. Aaron, Russell and John are also victims, with various histories of child abuse, rape, imprisonment, assault and poverty, damaging them body and mind. Violence has bred violence in these men, and in millions of others. Hate crimes laws do nothing to break this cycle, and promise to perpetuate it.

There is no evidence that enhanced sentencing will prevent hate crimes. The death penalty and the war on (some) drugs are famous examples of the lack of deterrent effect of even extreme penalties.

While the persistence and pervasiveness of prejudice is deep within the national culture, hate crimes are local. And the effective responses and preventives are also local. Yet queer money is bulking up the national organizations focused on hate crimes legislation, while community programs do the real work with scarce funds.

These bills are an easy sell, and they are sold with emotional slogans. But politics by sound bite often bites the hand that feeds it. Where is the analysis, the perspective? Jumping in bed with the law and order beast makes for very strange bedfellows indeed. The history of queer struggle and most civil rights struggle has been against this authoritarian creature, and for good reason. For hundreds of years, we have been the targets of state repression. The criminal (in)justice system has a tradition of homophobia. Nationally, reports of anti-LGBT violence committed by police officers grew by 866% in one year (between 1997 and 1998). In the San Francisco Bay area, fully half of reported incidents of violence against transgendered people were committed by law enforcement officers (1998).

Class analysis is also missing, but it is a key factor in both hate crimes and hate crimes laws. Aaron and Russell attacked two Hispanic youths after they left Matthew dying at the cattle fence. The entire night of crime had classism permeating and feeding the racism and homophobia. Class is a perennial problem in the national LGBT groups that are leading this campaign. Assimilation is a class issue, as proud expression is squelched by expedience of appearing "just like everyone else", whatever that means.

Skepticism about hate crimes law is politically inconvenient. Many of the voices against these laws have a vested interest in homophobic hate. Fear of queer is the cash cow of the religious Reich. Fundamentalist pundits sound off on legal concerns, related to equality and freedom of speech. These are well explained by the ACLU (which supports the intention and most of the provisions of the HCPA). Holier-than-thou homophobes complain that such laws are part of that demon, "homosexual agenda". They are particularly angry that some statutes mandate teaching tolerance.

In the end, as in the beginning, that is the key: education. By our actions, by our lives, by our language, we must be teaching tolerance, and celebration, of all members of the community. Hate crimes legislation, as currently perceived, is too much, too little, too late.

  2000 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

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