March 15, 2017
Earlier this week a neighborhood in Southeast Portland was covered in spray-painted swastikas. Swastikas on cars, fences, trees, and sidewalks. It’s been part of a rash of similar graffiti in the metro area this winter, including “Kill niggers” and other racist scrawlings at Lake Oswego High School and a swastika with a “Heil Trump” tag in men’s room at Portland State University. A report released today by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism-California State University, San Bernardino found a 22% increase in reported hate crimes in 2016 in ten large cities across the country (including Seattle). Is this the new normal in Trump’s America?
I spent the morning testifying at the Oregon state capital in support of Senate Bill 356, that would refine the state’s hate crime law and add gender and ethnicity to the protected statuses. It was a chance to explain to our state’s lawmakers the “greater harm” of bias motivated criminality and why the nation started passing these laws in the 1980s. I began my testimony with the story of a woman named Loni Kai, who was born a male named Lorenzo Okaruru. Kai was brutally murdered in 2001. She was last seen hitchhiking on a main thoroughfare in Hillsboro, Oregon. Her body was found in a nearby field the following day with her head caved in from a savage beating. At the time, the case could not be investigated and prosecuted as a hate crime because gender (and gender identity) were not included in the state’s hate crime statute. Almost 16 years later there still have been no arrests in the murder of Loni Kai.
Since election day there has been a dramatic increase of hate crimes and hate incidents around the country. Hate incidents are acts that protected by the Constitution as free speech but are still hateful. After the election, there were numerous reports of high school boys telling Muslim and Latinx students that Trump was going to get them. It’s not uncommon to see cars and trucks in Oregon with swastika placards. Hate crimes are things that are already illegal (vandalism, assault, murder, etc.) that are committed because of a bias motive towards the victims perceived demographic membership. Yes, this includes kids who get beat up because they are white.
Hate Crimes as a form of terrorism
If I had the dollar for every time somebody asked me, “Isn’t every crime a hate crime?” I’d be a rich sociologist. Most crimes are motivated by financial gain, so I’d like to hear your argument that stealing a bike is a hate crime or burning down the business for insurance fraud is a hate crime. Hate crimes focus on the motive, a common thing in criminal prosecution. That’s why there is a difference between homicide and manslaughter. Did that guy break into your house to steal your gun or to just take a shower? Those are two different crimes.
Why don’t we consider the September 11, 2001 attacks 2,977 cases of homicide (or one case of homicide with 2,977 victims)? Because all of America was the target. And those who were around on that day can testify that every single person was affected. (I had an irrational anxiety about crossing large bridges for months – a real problem in Portland). The goal wasn’t to kill just the people on the planes, in the Pentagon, and in the World Trade Center. The intended victim was all Americans. Terrorism is a message crime targeted at entire populations. A swastika spray-painted on a Jewish family’s car is going to impact more than just that family. This is why these laws exist. Greater harm.
The research is clear. Hate hurts more. Nobody wants to be a victim of a crime. It straight up sucks. But hate crimes tend to be more violent, like baseball repeatedly bashing a skull violent. Like Osama bin Laden, hate criminals want to send a clear message to a larger population. Get out of my land. If hate crime victims survive, they are more likely to need reconstructive surgery and long term-therapy compared to other victims of violent crime. We know that hate crime victims have deeper psychological scars and suicide attempts. When someone beats you for your gender identity, it’s deeper than someone beating you because they want your debit card. Victims of hate tend to withdraw and then the cavalcade of problems continue; at their job, in their family, and with their community.
It doesn’t end there. The target community also suffers. Who is going to be the next victim? Is this attack a reflection of wider beliefs? If there is a gay bashing in Portland tonight, all members of the LGBTQ community in Portland will experience the wave of anxiety and impulse to withdraw. The 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw in Portland by racist skineads created a wave of fear in the city, and not just among the local Ethiopian community. Many people of color shut their doors and focused on their and their children’s safety. Like how Americans felt after 9/11, but just think of a 9/11 after 9/11 after 9/11.
Wait, there’s more! Researchers have found that whole communities suffer after a hate crime. People start wondering what side their neighbors are on. Vibrant networks are strained as distrust grows. Yusef Hawkins was a 16-year-old black boy who was murdered by a white mob in Bensonhurst, New York in 1989. In the aftermath, the community erupted into months of racial conflict and violence. To this day, you can’t hear the name “Bensonhurst” and not think of how bad we can be to each other.
That leads to the last harm, the place itself. Like Bensonhurst, what do you think of when someone says Jasper, Texas or Laramie, Wyoming? There’s a good chance you recall the brutal 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard. Places become stigmatized by the hate crimes that occur there. Many people across the world still think of the Seraw killing (29 years ago!) when someone says “Portland, Oregon.” I’ve had numerous people ask me, “Is Portland safe? I’ve heard about these skinheads.” And pity the poor state of Idaho. Nobody is looking at brochures from the Chamber of Commerce these days. They’re using Google and guess what they find when they look up Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
I am not your white person
In the Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, the late African-American author James Baldwin asks us to take a real look at the state of race in America. Not a Hollywood version, but a real hard look. And by “us,” he really means white people because everybody else pretty much knows what’s up. I’ve learned that most white people don’t like it when a person of color holds a mirror too close to their face. They’ll call them “racist” for trying to show them their own unstated racism. They’ll accuse them of “stirring up trouble” (as a white friend from Georgia said on my Facebook page today about Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. John Lewis). Looking is uncomfortable. The airbrushed version of myself is so much prettier.
The ugly reflection is that hate crimes are on the increase in America. Bomb threats at Jewish Centers, Muslim-Americans being assaulted and told to leave the country, Latinos being beaten by self-styled vigilantes, gay and trans kids being bullied, and, yes, even some white folks getting beaten up just for being white. This is the civil war our current president has no interest in rectifying. In fact, he has only fanned the flames of hatred.
In Oregon, we are trying to take a stand against both the history of oppression and the current effort to take us back to “again,” when, for some people, America was “great.” Never again. I’m proud to be a part of that effort.