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.