America draws its strength from our collective belief in the pursuit of justice through the rule of law. Evidence of the importance our nation places on ensuring that every citizen has the opportunity to create their own version of the American dream – safely, free from discrimination, and violence – can be found in the myriad of state and federal laws that regulate biased crime criminalize.
This category of violent crime – commonly referred to as “hate crime” – is an assault or bodily harm caused by hostility towards the actual or supposed characteristics of the victim (e.g. race, gender) or belonging to a group (e.g. religious affiliation, national origin) is shaped.
Just last month, in response to the recent wave of reported discrimination and violence against the communities in the Asia-American Pacific Islands, Congress quickly sent the COVID-19 hate crime law to President Joe Biden’s desk. It will:
- Improve online access to hate crime reporting.
- Appoint a Justice Department official to expedite review of such cases.
- Funding of crime-fighting programs through state and local grants.
In an obvious change to his philosophy on federal hate crime laws, US MP Vern Buchanan endorsed the COVID-19 Hate Crime Act; Meanwhile, US MP Greg Steube stood on the side of 62 Republicans in Congress who voted against the passage of the bill.
Biden signed the law with Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Asian-American Vice President, building on the existing federal legal framework for hate crimes, which was first developed in the 1960s.
Four years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which prohibited discrimination in the workplace and in public places based on race, color, religion, national origin, and gender – Johnson signed his signature on the very first article of federal law Against Hate Crimes: the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Catalyzed by the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 empowered the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute biased crimes.
But the Justice Department’s jurisdiction was limited: in order for the FBI to investigate an alleged attack, a victim had to be involved in a “federally protected activity” – such as going to school, voting, or serving as a juror. If not, the case would be overseen by a local prosecutor – and many prosecutors are partisan officials with their next election in mind.
The politicization of the investigation and prosecution of a biased crime is still not uncommon in modern America: look no further than the more than two-month delay before suspected Ahmaud Arbery attackers were arrested and charged by the state of Georgia with federal murder and hate crimes in the Under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
Developed by a broad coalition of civil rights and law enforcement organizations such as the NAACP, the National Sheriffs Association, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Council of Jewish Women, the Shepard-Byrd Act expanded the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 through enlargement Federal authority to investigate and prosecute violent crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. In addition, the requirement that the victim had to pursue an activity protected by federal law – a circumstance that previously triggered a federal examination – was deleted.
The namesakes of the Shepard-Byrd Act, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., both fell victim to horrific crimes. Matthew Shepard was a political science student at the University of Wyoming who campaigned for LGBTQ + on campus – and who wanted to join the State Department. James Byrd of Texas was a father and salesman who asked the wrong people to drive home. His body was dumped in front of a black church. On its way to President Barack Obama’s desk, the Shepard-Byrd Act garnered strong bipartisan support, despite Buchanan’s dissenting votes.
When analyzing Buchanan’s 17-year election record, it is difficult to understand his philosophy of extending federal power to the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes. For example, while Buchanan voted against the Shepard Byrd Act, he also voted to support the COVID-19 Hate Crime Act – and he has campaigned for animal cruelty crimes to be anchored in the federal criminal code.
It is difficult to reconcile Buchanan’s now-realized legislative goal of bringing the animal cruelty indictment to a federal court with his refusal to take the same approach to crimes targeting a specific group of marginalized Americans, the have historically been harmed by hatred.
Before jumping to conclusions, I gave Buchanan the benefit of the doubt when I introduced myself to him at a Sarasota Chamber of Commerce lunch last year. I reminded the congressman that I had been doing an internship at his county office as a teenager, and then asked him to make a statement on his “no” vote to the Shepard Byrd Act. But Buchanan said he couldn’t remember – and then abruptly disappeared into the outgoing crowd.
Throughout June, the city of Sarasota will partner with hundreds of other cities across the country to celebrate the diversity of our community and our commitment to full civil rights for all Americans. Throughout the month, the programs designed by Project PRIDE SRQ will bring the LGBTQ + community and their allies together as we commemorate civil rights victories at the local, state and federal levels.
While our local federal officials may seem to have forgotten, we will collectively remember Matthew Shepard, James Byrd, Ahmaud Arbery, and all Americans who lost their lives to hatred. May their memories remind us to love again.
Gabriel Hament is a native of Sarasota and a political strategist for the Democratic Party.