Ahmaud Arbery's aunt, Kim Arbery, listens to family attorney S. Lee Merritt speak with reporters in front of the Glynn County Courthouse after the preliminary hearing of Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Brunswick, Ga. The three men are accused of shooting her nephew while he ran through their neighborhood in February. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Photo: Stephen B. Morton/AP
Photo: Stephen B. Morton/AP

Opinion: The GOP attempt to turn a hate crimes bill into a police protection vehicle

Note to readers: Some 90 minutes after this column was posted at 6:48 p.m. Monday, the Senate Rules Committee removed protections for police officers and other first responders  that were inserted into House Bill 426 last week. Details can be had here.

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Three blasts from a shotgun at close range. A 25-year-old unarmed man takes a few faltering steps, then crumples. In a twisted but not unfamiliar benediction, the white figure holding the smoking gun utters a racial epithet as old as African slavery.

Or so we are told.

Months of hemming and hawing by coastal Georgia law enforcement authorities follow. One prosecutor puts in writing his argument for burying the incident.

This week, the state Senate is expected to take up a House measure intended to allow increased criminal penalties for those who target their victims because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or national origin.

The debate over House Bill 426 offers the possibility of a rare inflection point in Georgia politics, the opportunity for a tectonic crack in Southern culture and attitude.

Republicans in the Senate have responded to the challenge by proposing that police officers and other first responders be included in the hate crimes legislation as a protected class.

GOP senators insist that the amendment, added in a thoroughly partisan vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday, is not intended as irony or insult. Or as a poison pill to kill the legislation.

“There are wives of police officers that have been quoted in the newspaper, telling their husbands, ‘Do not bring the police cruiser home and park it in our driveway, ‘cause we are afraid we are going to be targeted,’” said state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, the former majority leader. We have not seen these newspaper clippings. Nor has any video surfaced.

And so it is necessary that we re-examine precisely what has brought us to this point.

You know that Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was fatally shot in her home by Louisville, Ky., police in the botched March execution of a no-knock warrant. On Memorial Day, officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to fatal effect. This month, Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back and killed as he fled two Atlanta police officers in south Atlanta, Taser in hand.

But before all of them, Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and killed in Glynn County on Feb. 23. Only in early May, when the video leaked, were three white men charged in his death. They include a father and son. The father, though retired, has extensive law enforcement connections.

House Speaker David Ralston, R- Blue Ridge, immediately called for Senate passage of HB 426, authored by state Rep, Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, and passed by the House in 2019. In the weeks that have followed, Ralston has declared the measure’s passage to be a moral necessity. Dozens of Republican and Democratic officeholders are in agreement, as are former Govs. Roy Barnes and Nathan Deal.

Georgia’s business leaders have referred to passage of hate crimes legislation as fundamental to the state’s economic future – a low-bar acknowledgement of racial disparity that is essential if we are to tackle more nuanced problems.

But back to the matter at hand. If turmoil in the Senate Republican caucus is any indication, this week’s debate over HB 426 will be a defining moment not just for Georgia, but for the GOP that now rules over us.

Many Republicans on the House side, whose control of that chamber hangs by a 16-seat margin, quietly worry that failure to pass a hate crimes bill could contribute to Democratic gains in November. Senate Republicans have a more comfortable cushion.

In his demands for passage of HB 426, Speaker Ralston has insisted that no change be made to the measure by the Senate that would require a second vote in the House. With the Legislature set to finally adjourn on Friday, time is running out.

But that is not how things work in the state Capitol. Fingerprints are a sign of ownership, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, wants his on HB 426.

This is a good thing. It speaks of commitment. Last week, in an interview on CNN, Duncan said he had become a “subject matter expert” on hate crimes legislation since the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery.

Duncan promised an amendment to require data collection on hate crimes, and a provision to guarantee the right of victims to take their persecutors to civil court. He promised bipartisan support in the chamber.

But while a lieutenant governor presides over a Senate, he doesn’t necessarily control it. No one has yet said it in public, but the Senate Republican caucus apparently rejected Duncan’s effort to join the building statewide consensus over what a hate crimes bill should look like. There is little chance of bipartisan support for what Senate Republicans are about to attempt.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee met on Friday, due attention was given to outrage over the slaying of Arbery and other men and women of color.

“We have this blight, we have this little undercurrent that pops its head up from time to time,” said Cowsert, who was handling the bill. “One thing a lot of us are seeing today is conduct that we’ve heard complaints of for years. But we haven’t seen just the visceral evidence of it — photographic filmed evidence of injustice in our face, like we have recently. And it’s made a lot of people wake up.”

And yet the constructive proposals that Duncan had touted were conspicuously absent from the proposed changes. “Why was the data collection and civil action taken out?” asked state Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta.

“It was never in,” replied Cowsert, rather obscurely. “That is not before us.”

Instead, the committee inserted the discrimination protections for police officers and other first responders. Before they voted, committee members heard from David Emadi, the executive secretary of the agency once known as the state ethics commission.

In a past life, Emadi was a Douglas County prosecutor. When a local group of white miscreants waved Confederate flags and shotguns at black attendees during a child’s birthday party, Emadi went after them under the state’s anti-gang statutes. Hate crimes legislation, he said, would have made his job easier.

As for adding police officers as a protected category, Emadi said this: “I have never heard of that group targeted for any reason And I do not see what that language adds to this House bill.”

Asked why Republicans insisted on adding law enforcement protection to legislation that was in large part a reaction to policing gone awry, Cowsert’s answer was holistic. And focused on violent protests In Atlanta, Minneapolis and elsewhere rather than their cause.

“Because it’s addressing the same problem. What we are trying to do is create a civil society where we do not have this civil unrest, where we don’t have violence and we don’t have rioting, and we don’t have people so frustrated That they’re willing to throw bricks and firebombs into doors,” the Athens senator said.

Reaction on the floor of the Senate the next day was palpable. Democrats immediately condemned the amendment as a poison pill designed to kill the bill. State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, protested that characterization — and hinted at the very serious consequences of failure.

“I encourage the Democratic caucus to come to the table and to work with the majority caucus and not burn this building down,” she said during the Saturday session.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, who is African American, would have none of it. “To come in here and tell us that we’re going to put a protected class in a hate crimes bill, when we are here because it was the police that did the work to get us here,” he said – leaving the thought unfinished, but vowing absolute Democratic opposition.

At a Sunday press conference in support of Atlanta police officers, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, doubled down on the GOP strategy. “I don’t think that you can have that message of unity by passing a law that immediately carves y’all out,” Dugan told officers. “I do support biased-based legislation, and it’s not going to cure conduct, but it’s going to be an example from society that says we as people in this state do not condone this type of behavior.”

Is the Republican amendment an attempt to kill HB 426? Possibly. If it is not a poison pill, then it is an extreme form of chemotherapy that risks killing the host in an attempt to keep the bill alive.

Speaker Ralston and Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan have identified the hate crimes bill as legislation that not only needs, but requires, bipartisan support. Yet the events of this spring have not changed the minds of Republican senators who actually control that chamber.

It is possible that, should the measure make it to the floor, the Senate GOP caucus will hang together and pass HB 426 with its protections for law enforcement and other first responders. A House-Senate conference committee would then be appointed to work out a final version in the last hours of the session.

But it is worth noting that when the Senate Judiciary Committee passed out its altered version of the hate crimes bill, the panel left in protections for the LGBTQ community and transgender persons. As a group, Senate Republicans have never before expressed support for either constituency in a formal floor vote.

The situation is one made for sharp dealing, and will bear close watching.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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