Opinion: Ga. should pass needed hate crimes statute

The historic coastal city of Brunswick – once called a “model Southern city” for its racial harmony – reported zero hate crimes in the latest FBI statistics. Not a one. Perhaps that is because Georgia does not have any legal mechanism to define and track hate crimes.

Without any capacity to record officially hate crimes, it is unclear how many incidents in Brunswick targeted African Americans or how many suspects got away with it before Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in broad daylight. Law enforcement took two months to arrest the white men now charged with murder and aggravated assault. Other states might add a charge of committing a hate crime, but not in Georgia, where the Supreme Court overturned a law in 2004, and two subsequent hate crime bills failed to pass the legislature.

The brutal killing of Arbery underscores the need for immediate passage of Georgia’s proposed hate crime law, HB426. It also highlights the urgency of the National Opposition to Hate, Assaults, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act.

The bipartisan bill would improve hate crime reporting with grants to empower state and local governments to train law enforcement, create reporting hotlines, direct resources to minority communities, and conduct public educational forums. In exchange for federal funds, agencies would be required to submit hate crimes data to the FBI. Currently, reporting is voluntary, not mandatory.

My office hears about hate crimes too regularly – spray-painted swastikas, bricks through windows, verbal and physical attacks – but prosecutors will not call them hate crimes. Since tracking hate crimes is lacking, Georgia law enforcement is unable to make strategic decisions that protect the most vulnerable.

Brunswick has a population of more than 16,400, but a dozen Georgia cities of more than 50,000 each also reported no hate crimes to the FBI. In Atlanta, police and prosecutors apply an ordinance for “crimes manifesting evidence of prejudice.”

Georgia is one of only five states with no statute to adequately prosecute offenders who target someone based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected category.

The federal NO HATE Act would help fill a void here and in the other woefully deficient four states – Arkansas, South Carolina, Indiana, and Wyoming.

The American Jewish Committee’s landmark survey on antisemitism last year revealed that 75 percent of American Jews targeted by an antisemitic attack or remark didn’t report the incident. If they did, only 3% told police. Yet, the existing FBI data still shows that Jews and African Americans respectively are the No. 1 victims of religiously and racially motivated hate crimes.

The NO HATE Act offers assurance to minority communities that concerns about their safety are counted on a national scale, which could encourage more reporting of incidents.

Before the House voted to pass the NO HATE ACT, the Congressional Caucus on Black Jewish Relations, co-chaired by Congressman John Lewis, issued a powerful declaration of support for the measure.

“We know all too well the impact of fear-filled hate on our communities and our country,” the caucus said. “Hate crimes will continue to spread if left unaddressed. For our country to thrive during this turbulent time, each of our communities must not only feel safe but know that their concerns are counted on a national scale.”

“The Jewish community has also been the target of conspiracy theories, blaming the Jewish people for creating the virus,” the statement continued. “These false and spiteful claims further spread racism and antisemitism.”

The pandemic had nothing to do with the brutal murder of Arbery. The 25-year-old was jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick on February 23 when he was fatally shot.

Greg McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis, 34, were arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on May 7, but only after a video of the shooting had circulated, and the cold-blooded murder became a national and international story. To be sure, if a hate crime law had been in place in Georgia when Arbery was killed, the state would have acted faster. Arbery’s murder is a wake-up call for politicians to finally recognize a hate crime.

The NO HATE Act was included in the emergency stimulus package adopted on May 15 by the House. The Senate should move expeditiously to approve this vital legislation, so that President Trump can sign it into law.

At the same time, with Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House speaker David Ralston expressing support for the Georgia hate crimes statute, its passage should not be further delayed.

At last, there could be a mechanism that encourages people targeted for who they are to come forward and incentivizes state and local law enforcement to make sure the complaint counts.

Dov Wilker is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta Region.