Grady students organize grassroots lobbying in support of hate crime law

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Trinity Lewis

Protestors participate in "lie-ins" to symbolize George Floyd's last moments. Senior Trinity Lewis recognizes the connection between lobbying for House Bill 426 and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. "This bill is meant to serve also as a method of reporting and tracking hate crimes in Georgia," Lewis said. "That would even contribute to law enforcement training and how the police interact with people."

Yei Bin Andrews, Lifestyle Editor

In the midst of worldwide protests over the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police officers, Grady students are doing their part to make a change. 

Senior Maura O’Sullivan found it appalling that Georgia is one of four states that have no hate crime laws. When O’Sullivan saw information about House Bill 426 (HB 426), a proposed legislation which outlines hate crime laws for Georgia, she knew it was time to act. O’Sullivan along with senior Trinity Lewis and junior Francesca Ruhe established “The Grady Phone Bank.” 

“To lobby for HB 426, we’ve compiled the contact information of state senators and supplied a template for both calling and emailing,” Ruhe said. 

O’Sullivan describes the Grady Phone Bank as a form of grassroots lobbying, as Grady students are the ones sending the calls and emails to their senators. Lewis, Ruhe and O’Sullivan held daily Google Meets with participants from Jun. 1-6 for phone banking sessions. Along with walking volunteers through how to email and call, they provide essential information about the history of the bill. 

Two members of the George House of Representative, Chuck Efstration of Dacula and Calvin Smyre of Columbus, are the lead sponsors. Because Efstration is a Republican and Smyre is a Democrat, the bill has bipartisan backing.  

HB 426 was passed by the House on Mar. 7, 2019, then was stalled. Now, it’s scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Jun. 11, 2020. 

According to the Georgia General Assembly, the bill serves to “revise the criteria for imposition of punishment for crimes involving bias or prejudice; to revise the sanctions for such crimes; to provide for the manner of serving such sentences; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.” 

In simpler terms, HB 426 is meant to recognize, sentence and punish those who have committed crimes against others based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, or mental or physical disability. 

Along with supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, O’Sullivan has a brother on the autism spectrum, who has been the inspiration behind most of her advocacy work.  

“I have in day-to-day life seen so many things happen to him [my brother],” O’Sullivan said. “I’ve seen so many interactions where people understood that he was someone who could be taken advantage of and did take advantage of him. I very strongly feel that there needs to be a specific punishment for that.” 

Lewis also believes that setting the precedent of having hate crime legislation allows people to be convicted, tried and sued on the ground basis of discrimination. Given Georgia’s history as a Confederate state, she found it astounding that a bill like HB 426 had not already been passed. 

“When I found out about this bill, I started doing some research on it, and I realized that Georgia was one of the only states in America without some ground foundations for some type of hate crime legislation,” Lewis said. “Nothing can be tried as a hate crime in Georgia, and that’s crazy, especially with our history as one of the original Confederate states.” 

O’Sullivan also recognizes the problems surrounding Georgia having no hate crime laws and the implications that the lack of these laws have on her fellow Georgians. 

“…Georgia is a state which, given its demographic makeup, is at times more prone to hate crimes than other states,” O’Sullivan said. “The fact that we have a larger population of African American citizens in Georgia than in say, Maine, means that there are more people who potentially become a victim of a hate crime.” 

Ruhe noted the effects HB 426 would have on standing with minority groups and holding those who commit such crimes accountable. 

“Additionally, HB 426 succeeding would send a strong signal that the Georgia government is taking a stand against hate-based crimes,” Ruhe said. “That would both deter the people who would be perpetuating such crimes and help people doing further activism. After this, there will be a precedent that Georgia has minorities’ interests in mind.”

Junior Meg McGahan wanted to phone bank and lobby as much as possible to help further HB 426 and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“If the police officers that commit these hate crimes know that they will face severe consequences and not just a slap on the wrist, it might help bring down the number of these crimes,” McGahan said. 

Along with McGahan, junior Hannah Doherty wanted to show her support and use her privilege to stand with the black community and other minority groups. 

“I know that as a white person, I will not be victim to a hate crime or victim to an oppressor who walks free. I will never be able to fully understand the struggle that people of color face when it comes to the law,” Doherty said. “However, by lobbying for HB 426, I can show my support for them and try to help pass a bill that would protect them.” 

The Grady Phone Bank has been able to connect students with the common purpose of advocating for HB 426. However, there’s an unexpected factor that Ruhe credits in part of their success. 

“Surprisingly, I think Covid-19 has been a large part of our lobbying’s success,” Ruhe said. “Many people don’t feel comfortable with protests in a pandemic, and the only route they could take was online. That manifested in a lot of Instagram activism raising awareness, which we were able to channel into the phone bank.” 

As of Jun. 5, 2020, The Grady Phone Bank has recorded 1,500 calls amassed from Grady students. 

“It’s a first step; it’s not the end all be all,” Lewis said. “It’s not going to solve racism. It’s not going to solve hate crimes. It’s not going to solve police brutality, but it does set that precedent and that foundation which moves us to the next step.” 

 

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