Hate-crimes victims spark law change, but pain remains

Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, says she didn't know Georgia didn't have a hate-crimes law when her son was killed in February during a confrontation with three white men in Glynn County. “Before all of this happened to Ahmaud, I lived in a bubble,” she said. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)



Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, says she didn't know Georgia didn't have a hate-crimes law when her son was killed in February during a confrontation with three white men in Glynn County. “Before all of this happened to Ahmaud, I lived in a bubble,” she said. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Before Feb. 23, Wanda Cooper-Jones didn’t think her family could be drastically affected by racism.

But she realized how wrong she was as events unfolded in the days, weeks and months after her son Ahmaud Arbery — who was Black — was followed by three white men, shot and killed.

“Before all of this happened to Ahmaud, I lived in a bubble,” Cooper-Jones said. “I didn’t realize people were so racist. And I didn’t realize Georgia didn’t have a law to protect people from such things.”

Arbery’s death prompted Georgia lawmakers in June to pass a hate-crimes law, which strengthens the punishment of those who commit crimes against certain people based on bias.


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Supporters say the law will not only penalize those who commit crimes against people based on a characteristic such as their race, sexual identity or religion, but also make people reconsider targeting those protected groups.

And while victims of hate crimes, and family members and friends whom victims may have left behind, celebrate the passage of such laws, it doesn’t ease their pain.

“It’s difficult for me to get fully excited when we talk about, ‘Oh, we can classify the murder of your sister as a hate crime,’” said JA Moore, whose sister, Myra Thompson, was killed by a white supremacist at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015. “That doesn’t bring any relief to me.”

Georgia’s new law went into effect July 1 after lawmakers were spurred to action when video of Arbery being shot to death became public in May — footage Cooper-Jones said she hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch.

Arbery’s death was also thought to have spurred support in neighboring South Carolina to pass similar legislation, but efforts there failed. South Carolina is now one of three states with no hate-crimes law.

In Glynn County, Greg and Travis McMichael told police they believed Arbery was a burglary suspect when they saw him running through their Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick in February, according to police.

Ahmaud Arbery case: Travis and Greg McMichael face nine charges, including felony murder

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The McMichaels grabbed a shotgun and a handgun, got into their truck, and followed and confronted Arbery before the younger McMichael shot him. Travis McMichael is accused of calling Arbery an “f------ n-----” after shooting him. Arbery, 25, died at the scene.

Arbery’s family says he was out jogging when he was confronted and shot. The McMichaels and a third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, have been charged with murder.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in May that it was considering federal hate-crimes charges against the McMichaels.

Cooper-Jones said while it pains her to have lost her son, she has some comfort knowing it pushed the state to pass the bill. At least a dozen lawmakers invoked Arbery’s name while discussing, debating and celebrating passage of the legislation, House Bill 426.

“The Ahmaud Arbery death will not be in vain,” state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat, said when the bill was signed.

Still, it’s barely a consolation prize, Cooper-Jones said.

“I am glad that Ahmaud is going to be part of the movement of change,” she said.

But Cooper-Jones — and the hundreds of others who said they were victims of hate crimes in Georgia while the state had no extra protections for those who’ve been targeted because of who they are — say they wish it could have happened sooner.

Georgia’s new law

Georgia’s original hate crimes law — passed in 2000 — was ruled unconstitutionally vague by the state Supreme Court in 2004.

The law, used rarely in the four years it was on the books, was applied in the case of a homeless man and woman who attacked two Black brothers in Little Five Points after they refused to give them money.

Angela Pisciotta and Christopher Botts, both white, were found guilty of committing a hate crime and sentenced to two years in prison in addition to six years for aggravated assault. They appealed the hate-crimes conviction and won, overturning the law.

After an emotional and, at times, heated debate in June, the General Assembly approved a hate-crimes law that allows stronger criminal penalties to be levied against those who target their victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability.

Someone convicted of a crime and proved to have committed a hate crime would face an additional six to 12 months of incarceration for certain misdemeanors or at least two years for a felony. He or she would also face a fine of up to $5,000. The law also mandates that law enforcement track instances of hate crimes.

Between 2004 and 2018, the most recent data available, nearly 400 hate crimes were reported by a handful of Georgia law enforcement agencies — according to FBI statistics — and that number could be much higher.

Law enforcement agencies are required to send crime statistics to the FBI annually. Since there was no law on the books, only a few state law enforcement agencies voluntarily report incidents, making it difficult to know how often hate crimes really are occurring in Georgia.

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, the Atlanta Democrat who sponsored the 2000 legislation, said he was disappointed when the court struck down the law.

“From the time that the Supreme Court invalidated the law until 2020, there were a lot of people who could have gotten more comfort if a hate-crimes law was in place,” he said. “The first title of my bill was the Georgia Domestic Terrorism Act. I titled it that for a very specific reason — because terrorism is not just an attack on one person; its target is a whole population of people.”

Kelly Nelson poses for a portrait holding a photo of her friend and assistant, Trey Peters, at her home, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Smyrna, Ga.  Peters, a gay man in an interracial relationship, was killed in what was has been considered a hate crime in Decatur last year.  BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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‘They had a point to make'

Trey Peters was a gentle man, his friend Kelly Nelson said.

“He was the kindest, sweetest, most generous man ― wouldn’t hurt a fly,” the Atlanta resident said. “Literally. He would take bugs out of the house in his hands. I can’t imagine how anyone could feel hate toward him.”

Peters, a gay white man in an interracial relationship, was killed during a robbery last year near Decatur.

The homicide made national headlines because DeKalb County police classified the incident as “hate-motivated.” Investigators said a gunman used an anti-gay slur before robbing and killing Peters in June 2019.

Two men and a woman were arrested and charged with murder. All three are awaiting trial, according to DeKalb County Superior Court records.

Nelson said she wasn’t exactly sure why Peters, who was a friend who also worked for her as a personal assistant, was targeted.

“But there was obvious disdain for him as a homosexual in why they murdered him, it appeared,” she said. “They had a point to make.”

Adding two years to a sentence for murder — which Georgia law can punish with life in prison or the death penalty — might not seem like it would do much to deter hate crimes. But it could tamp down the majority of reported bias-motivated crimes, such as last year’s vandalism at Centennial High School in Roswell, that are not violent.

Of the nearly 8,500 hate crimes reported nationally in 2018, 30.1% were intimidation and 22.1% were property damage. In Georgia, 35 hate crimes were reported in 2018 by nine agencies, including 14 in Cobb County and one at the University of Georgia. The FBI has not yet released data for 2019.

Swastikas were among other graffiti found spray painted at Centennial High School in 2019.

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Students and faculty at Centennial High School were shaken when they arrived at school in February 2019 to find, among other things, swastikas spray-painted on their school. The diverse north Fulton County school has a large Jewish population, assistant principal Bre Peeler said.

For a week after the graffiti was found, Peeler said, the typically jovial halls were somber.

“Our students initially were very hurt to think of someone doing such a thing to the school because we function so much as a family here, so it was very personal to everyone in the building, whether you were Jewish or not Jewish,” Peeler said.

No charges have been filed in the vandalism.

Nelson said it was important that Georgia pass hate-crimes legislation so people will think twice about committing bias-motivated crimes.

“I think that, at the very least, it shows that we care about this enough to make a law,” Nelson said. “At the most, it would give people pause once they learn there’s repercussions for even the smaller things that are done in hate.”

FILE - In this June 18, 2015, file photo, a group of women pray at a makeshift memorial on the sidewalk in front of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. One big change happened in conservative South Carolina after a racist gunman killed nine black people during a Bible study five years ago, the Confederate flag came down. But since then, hundreds of other monuments and buildings named for Civil War figures, virulent racists and even a gynecologist who did painful, disfiguring medical experiments on African American women remain.

Credit: AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File

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Credit: AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File

Hate in South Carolina

The loved ones of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston have seen the face of hate up close and personal.

In 2015, news out of Charleston shocked the nation when a white man sat through Wednesday Bible study at Emanuel AME before shooting and killing nine of the Black church members in attendance, including the pastor. Though there is no hate-crimes law in South Carolina, 40 law enforcement agencies voluntarily reported 55 incidents to the FBI that year.

The man who killed them was convicted in 2017 in federal court on 33 charges, including hate crimes using a federal law and murder, and sentenced to death.

“I’ve been struggling to have these conversations for five years,” said Moore, whose sister was killed in the shooting. “There aren’t really words that are adequate at times. ... It feels just as bad now as it did five years ago.”

Many thought a change might come in the aftermath of the shooting at Emanuel. Lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds, but they didn’t pass a hate-crimes law, something Moore called a superficial fix.

South Carolina state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat, has pushed for his state to pass hate-crimes legislation for years.

He thought Arbery’s death could invoke change in South Carolina this year. His bill was approved by a House subcommittee before the growing coronavirus pandemic brought governing to a halt.

Clearing that very first legislative hurdle is the furthest a hate-crimes bill has advanced in the state, Gilliard said.

He said the bill has bipartisan support and, if he is reelected, he plans to refile the legislation in January.

“We feel we can get it done next year,” Gilliard said. “I feel pretty strongly about it, by virtue of (demands for racial justice) taking place in this country. By virtue of the other incidents that we’ve had, not only in the state of South Carolina but around the whole world.”

Now a South Carolina state representative, Moore said he supports additional penalties for people who target someone because of who they are, but he struggles to see the significance of a hate-crimes charge when it comes to his sister. It’s a sentiment of many who’ve lost loved ones due to the bias of the aggressor.

“The truth of the matter is, whether you classify it as a hate crime or just a crime in general, it doesn’t bring her back,” he said. “It doesn’t right the wrong.”