Head to Head: Should the state senate approve hate crime legislation, House Bill 426?

June 14, 2020

Georgia is one of four U.S. states that do not have hate crime legislation. House Bill 426 (HB 426), a piece of hate crime legislation with bipartisan support, outlines sentencing guidelines and additional punishment for people who were convicted of crimes motivated by bias toward the victim’s religion, race, national origin, color, sexual orientation, gender, mental or physical disability. The bill was approved by the Georgia House of Representatives in 2019; however, it currently remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Students voice their opinions on HB 426.

Hate crime legislation first step to enacting change

The appalling video of Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching in Brunswick, Ga., along with a never-ending stream of other racially-bigoted murders, released a tidal wave of activism. As protests swept the United States, including Atlanta, it was clear the support was just as strong within the Grady community. Grady students, Maura O’Sullivan, Trinity Lewis and I, looking for the most effective way to channel that support, organized the Grady Phone Bank. As Georgia is one of only four states without hate crime legislation, we were driven to help correct this glaring injustice.

The worldwide protests coincided with the reconvening of the Georgia legislature, as the normal schedule was disrupted due to COVID-19. When the legislature reconvenes on June 15, one of the many bills on the table will be House Bill 426 (HB 426), a piece of anti-hate crime legislation that makes it easier to punish hate-based crimes. The Grady Phone Bank has been lobbying for HB 426 for the past two weeks.

HB 426 became a rallying point for activists outraged with our broken criminal justice system and its enforcers. As organizers of the Grady Phone Bank for HB 426, we set up a grassroots lobbying campaign contacting state senators in support of the bill. We compiled the legislators’ contact information and made templates for anyone willing to voice support for HB 426. Support for our campaign was immediate and is ongoing, far exceeding our expectations. In two weeks, the phone bank produced more than 2,000 calls and emails.

Georgia has never had legislation against hate crimes, which are defined by the F.B.I. as “a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

In 2004, a bill was proposed, but ruled “unconstitutionally vague.” In 2019, HB 426, sponsored by House Representative Chuck Efstration, a Republican representing Gwinnett County, was proposed with bipartisan support. It stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, apparently due to lack of Republican support. Until the unique COVID schedule was instituted, the bill was presumed dead. Now that HB 426 is back on the table, it has garnered widespread bipartisan support from people waking up, due in part to the anger and urgency of the current national mood for the issue at hand. Suddenly, and for the first time in Georgia history, racist attitudes don’t sit well within the state’s power structure.

Previously, Georgia’s stubbornness to pass hate crime legislation demonstrated a callous attitude towards protecting its minorities. HB 426 would impose mandatory minimum fines, longer prison sentences, and will potentially create a stigma against vigilante killings. Throughout history in the South, there has rarely been any penalty for perpetrators of racist vigilante lynchings. HB 426 will help change that; for the first time in Georgia’s history, bigots will know that they’ll pay a price for hateful actions.

Harsher punishments are typically associated with the systemic injustice of the criminal justice system. However, that’s mostly when minorities, especially African Americans, have been accused. HB 426 helps balance the system. In cases where prejudice is truly the root of a crime, taking a strong stand against hate-based violence would demonstrate intolerance for such actions.

The passing of the bill also opens up a deeper conversation about the power of the state and legislation protecting minorities. People who criticize the retroactive nature of the bill’s policy or its comprehension are valid in their concerns, as are people questioning the foundations of the criminal justice system that HB 426 stands on.

However, it’s still essential to move forward with legislation. HB 426 is one brick in a wall being built. The signal it sends shows the public that the Georgia government and its legal apparatus have the interests of minorities in mind and will take steps to protect them. For future activists reforming the criminal justice system, this is a necessary precedent. If we see HB 426 as a first step, there will undoubtedly be more comprehensive legislation later to fill in the gaps the current proposals leave exposed.

As I and the majority of Grady High School are under the voting age, it is imperative that we make our voices heard through any other means we can. It’s our job to enact meaningful, lasting change, and I urge anyone invested in the future of Georgia and our country to act for change.

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Hate crime legislation fails to enact change

I was among hundreds of protestors kneeling on a normal American street in Atlanta. The scratch of pavement on my knee gave me perspective about what George Floyd endured on another normal American street in Minneapolis where he was murdered by those sworn to protect him: the police.

This public execution has thrust policing practices into the national spotlight because we have seen once again the trend of unnecessary force being used to control and, oftentimes, kill people of color. Not only are police murdering Black people, but when Americans come out to express their very valid grief, hope and rage, police use violent methods to disperse protesters. For example, recently, our very own Atlanta police officers tasered Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young as they sat in their car after curfew; protestors in Washington D.C. were tear gassed in the middle of the day and New York protesters were run over by police cars.

Like any empathetic person, I feel outraged witnessing the continued violence that black and brown people experience in our country. We cannot just be outraged in this situation; we must demand change. This is why I was proud to see my fellow Grady students take action to demand material steps to correct the criminal justice system by advocating for the passage of House Bill 426. HB 426 is a piece of hate crime legislation that would add extra sentencing to perpetrators of any criminal act inspired by bias or prejudice from issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion and other categories.

It has recently received more attention, as shown by a popular rally at the state capitol on May 31. On an emotional level, I understand why this bill is gaining traction because, like most Americans, I want to see the murderers of George Floyd held accountable for their horrific crime.

In this crucial moment of nationwide upheaval and activism, I feel that it is particularly important to grapple with the realities rooted in systemic racism that black and brown people face. HB 426 misses a fundamental part of the conversation that must be held in America. In the context of a racially-motivated police force that targets black and brown people, any reform that gives police departments another tool to arrest will result in continued discrimination.

Black people constitute 27% of those arrested in the U.S., more than double the African-American share of the population. This is specifically replicated in arrests relating to hate crimes where, even though there are fewer available statistics, FBI data shows that black Americans are twice as likely to be arrested for a hate crime than white people. Black people are not more hateful than their white counterparts, but rather, this is indicative of a history of profiling and discriminatory police practices permeating all the way down to hate crimes enforcement: a law that ironically is intended to correct racist practice.

HB 426 will not just serve as another racist tool of the police, it will also continue the hateful bias in this country. Currently, the vast majority of people prosecuted over hate crimes are those involved in property vandalism, which has two significant implications for what happens inside prison.

First, hate crimes legislation cements the fact that we have the largest incarcerated population in the world and continues to pose a broken prison system devoid of resources as a necessary solution to a societal problem. Second, it is completely illogical to assume that being incarcerated will make an individual less hateful when it would do the opposite. Prisoners face massive amounts of sexualized violence and are also splintered along racial lines with the existence of racialized gangs in prison, which would only cement whatever homophobic or racist ideal they have.

In no way do I wish to disparage activists from Grady who are advocating for HB 426, but this is the time to think radically and holistically because racist discrimination is a totalizing problem that minute shifts in policy won’t solve. We must move from avenging the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor , who was killed by police on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, KY. to preventing these murders and discrimination from happening in the first place.

We must tackle systemic racism in police departments. We need to institute community review boards to keep police accountable to the black communities they protect. We need to be pursuing reform that puts fewer people in jail for less time, like legalizing marijuana … and completely ending cash bail. If our activism does not fight for these reforms first, hate crimes legislation will only expand and sanitize an anti-black criminal-legal system.

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