Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hate crimes: It's time to finally pass a federal law

-- by Dave

The most recent well-publicized anti-Latino bias crime -- this time involving the death of an Ecuadorean immigrant -- has prompted the National Council of La Raza to push for the passage, at long last, of a federal hate-crimes law:

Today the National Council of La Raza (NCLR)—the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States—joined leaders from the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda on Capitol Hill to urge Congress and the new Administration to make passage of the “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act” a priority. Following on the heels of November's brutal battery and murder of Marcelo Lucero in Suffolk County, NY, another senseless death has provoked outrage in communities throughout the nation. Two Ecuadorean brothers were assaulted on December 8 in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Jose Osvaldo Sucuzhanay died last week as a result of his injuries.

“President-Elect Obama and the new Congress should not waste any time in immediately passing the ‘Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act’ so that more lives are not lost in senseless attacks,” said Janet MurguĂ­a, NCLR President and CEO. “The wave of hate unleashed by the polarized debate over immigration has led to an increase in violence and hate groups targeting Latinos. These recent deaths are a direct outcome of the anger and hatred spurred on by people who mischaracterize all Latinos and the institutions that serve them as a threat to our country.”

No doubt Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly will promptly find ways to distort this debate. But they need a little reality check:

Hate crimes-Latinos chart_4e3d1.JPG

As the SPLC reports:

Hate crimes targeting Latinos increased again in 2007, capping a 40% rise in the four years since 2003, according to FBI statistics released this fall.

As anti-immigrant propaganda has increased on both the margins and in the mainstream of society — where pundits and politicians have routinely vilified undocumented Latino immigrants with a series of defamatory falsehoods — hate violence has risen against perceived "illegal aliens." Each year since 2003, the number of FBI-reported anti-Latino hate crime incidents has risen, even as a swelling nativist movement has become larger and more vitriolic.

This about more than just Latinos, though. This is about black people (remember the Jena 6?), gays and lesbians, Muslims ... every kind of minority. And for that matter, it's about white straight people too:

Bias-crime laws are a way for society to make clear its condemnation of such acts, recognizing them as more heinous than simple crimes because they cause greater harm. Indeed, pretending as opponents do that a cross burned on the lawn is the same as being egged and toilet-papered, or that a gay-bashing rampage by young thugs is the same thing as a bar fight, simply tries to pretend away the truly hateful and terroristic element of the former of these, as though it doesn't exist. But it does exist, and its effects poison our society and make a joke out of our self-belief in ourselves as an "equal opportunity" society.

This, in the end, is the single clearest reason why progressives should avidly support a federal hate-crimes law: These are crimes whose primary purpose is to disenfranchise, to expel, to deny the most basic rights of association and opportunity to millions of Americans of all stripes. Civil libertarians need to come to grips with the fact that these crimes are real, their effects are real, and they represent, as Donald Green argues, a real "massive dead-weight loss of freedom" for those millions of Americans.

Americans lose their freedoms not just through government oppression; an honest appraisal of our history forces us to recognize that there is a substantial track record of Americans losing their freedoms (up to and including their lives) through the actions of their fellow citizens: the genocide of Native Americans; the long reign of terror of the "lynching era" and associated "sundown towns" that infected the entire nation; the expulsion and incarceration of Asian Americans; the long-running campaign of vicious hatred directed against gays and lesbians.

Hate crimes are an integral part of that history, and laws intended to punish their perpetrators with stiffer sentences are an important blow for the cause of very real and substantial freedoms for millions of Americans. Trying to argue that, in some esoteric sense, they constitute "thought crimes" that somehow deprive us of our freedoms (to what? commit crimes?) turns this reality on its head.

Yet progressives haven't yet figured out that framing hate-crime laws as a defense of people's civil liberties is precisely the argument that will instantly deflate the long-running "thought crime" argument. In all the debate over the legislation, I haven't seen the point raised once.

As long as small-town -- and even big-city -- law-enforcement officers labor under misconceptions about bias-crime laws and fail to properly identify, investigate, or prosecute them, places like Jena are going to fester. And this is where the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act comes in -- because its primary mission is to help local law cops and prosecutors do their job well -- by providing logistical and investigative support, grants, training, and other kinds of assistance.

Here’s a link to the most recent version of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Spineless Democrats -- facing a certain G.W. Bush veto -- crumbled when it counted last year when there was a historic chance for its passage. This year, they will have no excuse -- especially with Latino groups getting on board.

[Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.]

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