Hate crime legislation first step to enacting change

Francesca Ruhe

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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