Dallas police have decided not to charge Bobby Singleton and Jonathan Gunter with a hate crime in the brutal beating of a 42 year old gay man earlier this year. The two are accused of pistol whipping the survivor while making homophobic comments and calling him homophobic slurs. When he fell to the ground they continued to hit him about the head with the side of the gun while kicking him repeatedly in the chest and legs. If found guilty they face a maximum sentence of 99 years each. read more here.
I’ve spoken about my frustration with hate crimes charges being omitted before on this blog and it’s time to raise it again. In the recent past, beatings of people of color, queer youth, and disabled women many of whom occupy more than one of those categories have failed to be prosecuted as hate crimes. In each case, the defendants have been accused or admitted to targeting a survivor or dead victim on the basis of their identity. They often admit to or are accused of using offensive language that would furhter prove hate crimes charges.
Yet, the prosecution has consistently chosen not to file hate crimes charges. In each case, they have argued that nothing is to be gained from such charges since the crimes themselves contain maximum sentences that are greater than those of hate crime sentences. When I asked the question about whether or not hate crimes sentencing is in addition to, we had a lawyer at the spot explain that in fact the time is additive BUT if you get a life sentence, there is no point to life + 10 years.
The “no point” or “why bother” attitude seems to prevail in our legal system of late. But I want to argue that there is another reason for hate crimes charges: documentation. I mean this, both in the sense of actual statistical information about acts of hate in N. America as well as the sense of documentation as “witness” to mark that hate still prevails in the way some of us treat “others.”
When hate crimes charges are not filed, the statistics about violence against people on the basis of identity are false. They show a picture of our nation as more tolerant or safe than it actually is. This picture is then used to argue that bigotry is on the decline and to underfund programs that address various forms of oppression. It leads to belief that members of targeted groups have “unfair advantages” because of “something in the past” and not that they are seeking equality and safety in the here and now. Ultimately, underreporting is an economic and social issue that leads to underfunding of needed services and safe spaces and lack of understanding across difference.
Calling these acts by their name, hate crimes, also has a psychological effect for both the targets of the crime and the communities to which they belong. When we speak of the violence against us, there is something powerful in being able to say that the state itself has recognized that violence and condemned it, even when that condemnation is fleeting. When we mourn the loss of the facade of safety on our streets and in public spaces together, a hate crimes designation may mean the difference between people feeling safe to attack our suffering or to leave us alone. It may mean the difference between people who do not understand learning and simply minimizing these events as isolated or part of general crime rates from which they don’t get “extra protection.” And it is a marker in our shared history that reminds us all why we do the work we do, why we have to keep struggling with people who seem hopeless, and why we have to love harder and fight stronger.
When prosecutors say “why bother,” whether they know it or not, they are sending a message that oppression is irrelevant. They are saying my safety and yours are less equal than the perpetrators of violence. And they are telling all of us, ultimately we will have to fend for ourselves.
It is not about sentencing it is about documenting the truth.
Why bother? Because a gay life, a person of color’s life, a differently-abled woman’s life are important enough to mark how and why they almost or did die.
t-shirt logo. Classic God Shop. (no I am not linking back to them)
Orthodox Jewish protest at gay pride 2007 in Jerusalem. AP Photo. Unattributed.
survivor of hate crime. photo unattributed. from That’s Life in the City Blog
Maya Marcel-Keyes at Gay Rights Rally in Maryland. AP Photo. Photographer Matthew S. Gunby. article here.
rally celebrating gay marriage rights in Spain 2005. photo unattributed.