The legislation, which is identical to a bill working its way through the Senate, would allow federal prosecutors to pursue charges against people who were exercising a federal right and were attacked based on sexuality, sex or physical disability. As it stands, the prosecutors can only step in when the victim was attacked on the basis of race, color, religion or nationality.
The right wing is predictably incensed at the possibility that anti-gay violence would be given the same scrutiny that racial violence has been given since the 1960s. They claim that this bill would interfere with the right to speak freely, even though it states explicitly that “evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense.”
That means it isn’t enough that someone had expressed some antipathy to a class of people at some point. But if, as in a recent incident in Lawrence, a person driving down the street shouts “faggot” at a pedestrian, then gets out and starts beating the pedestrian, the case is different. The epithet strongly suggests that the goal was not to fight one particular individual, but to terrorize an entire class of people.
Had the person merely shouted the epithet and driven on, no crime would have been committed. No matter what, getting out of the car and beating someone is a crime. The crime is worse when it targets not one victim, but an entire community.
Lindsay Beyerstein highlights another example, in which “Five members of a self-styled Alabama militia … planned a machine-gun attack on Mexicans.” Had they carried out their plot, the men would have been guilty of numerous crimes, probably including murder, terrorism and of course firearms and explosives charges. But that would not capture the full horror of their plot, because the intent of the crime was not simply to take lives and be done, but to demonstrate that they (and others) want Mexicans out of their community. The victims would include not just those killed or wounded by their guns and bombs, but anyone with the same skin color or national origin.
The same logic applies to lynchings, whether of African-Americans or gay men. Those crimes are not just crimes against one person, they are signs that a class of people is not welcome in the community. The law that the House passed, and the President claims he’ll veto, would allow federal action if the state cannot or will not bring charges when a crime has been committed based on bias and in a way that interferes with interstate commerce or with a person’s federal rights. This avoids situations were a local official shares the biases of a criminal and refuses to push a case aggressively enough, as happens far too frequently with civil rights cases.
This bill is simple common sense. It ensures that everyone has equal access to the law and equal protections. There are no special rights created, and no impingements on free speech, let alone free thought. I hope it passes the Senate and that the President signs it.