Monday, April 2nd, 2012

The Astounding Wrongness of Bill Keller on Hate Crimes

Apparently the only person who can convince me of the legal and moral sense of hate crimes laws is Times columnist Bill Keller, because his case against them is so terribly bad. Keller has tardily joined the ranks of liberals so opposed, including Andrew Sullivan, the Quakers and also noted legal theorist Bill Maher. (He's also found himself in the fine company of the Georgia State Supreme Court.) But that he's chosen to come out in the context of Travyon Martin and the Tyler Clementi case doesn't even begin to make sense.

Of course it'd be really easy to go the "straight white millionaire who was born when there were only 48 states explains why hate crimes laws are bad" route on Bill Keller, but let's just note that unfair impulse and set it aside.

It's much easier to pick on him for using "two makes a trend"—particularly when one case is the Trayvon Martin case, which actually isn't a case, since no one's been charged of anything, and the other is the Tyler Clementi case. Lots of people—myself included—have already noted their unease with the application of hate crime charges in the Case of the Obnoxious and Bullying Roommate, in the events that took place prior to Clementi's suicide. The particular charge in this case that concerns Keller is "bias intimidation." But Keller clearly misunderstands what happened, and what the jury said.

In New Jersey, that bias intimidation charge means that "a person is guilty of the crime of bias intimidation if he commits, attempts to commit, conspires with another to commit, or threatens" a crime "with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity."

Dharun Ravi, Clementi's roommate, was found guilty of this once—and, you know, also guilty of lots of other charges, including invasion of privacy, destroying evidence, "hindering apprehension or prosecution" and good old witness tampering. (Seven of those counts, in fact, were about witness tampering and hindering apprehension.)

But on the vast array of bias charges, he was acquitted.

Perhaps Keller was confused because his paper covered this trial so poorly. "A former Rutgers University student was convicted on Friday on all 15 charges he had faced for using a webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man, a verdict poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology" was how their trial conviction news story opened. But he was convicted on parts of all fifteen counts, and acquitted on bias charges on almost all of them.

And then here's how Keller describes this jury: "My reading of the case is that the jury seized on those handy bias statutes in a clumsy attempt to punish somebody for a death that remains unexplained." That's not at all what happened, even with a glancing read; the jury clearly very carefully decided on which charges they would acquit and convict, and therefore rejected most of the bias claims. (And sentencing takes place in May, so we can't bemoan Ravi's prison sentence yet, because there isn't one.)

With regard to Trayvon Martin, which, if it is established to be a crime, does seem somewhat likely to have bias charges involved. The victim—or at least the person who is dead—seems to have been chosen solely for being black. Meanwhile, it has taken a national outcry to get police to pursue the case. But… right. There are no charges. This is a made-up complaint about hate crimes laws, since no one has been charged with anything yet.

Putting aside what did or did not happen in Sanford, still, we do know that Trayvon was followed and reported to the police for being black and male while walking. So when Keller writes that the public outrage is "fashioning a narrative from the hate-crimes textbook — bellowing analogies to the racist nightmares of Birmingham and Selma" and that that is "just political opportunism," he's way into the realm of whitesplaining to a world who knows very well that black people are often treated differently by people with guns. While he's criticizing "the media" here (in this case, talking head commentators), what's "political" about your or my own outrage over this case? Not a thing. He's held up a media strawman to represent us all, and it doesn't work.

So why does Keller hang his anti-bias law arguments on these two cases? What makes Keller's op-ed so unconvincing and off-the-mark is the 3116 individuals accused of committing assault and bias crime in 2010 alone, the most recent year for which FBI hate crime statistics are available. Using two cases—actually, just one case, and even then, one case in which nearly all the bias charges were thrown out—to weigh in against hate crimes laws is an enormous piece of negligence. To overlook actual cases of bias crime to denounce bias crime charges is nonsensical. I'm not even an enthusiast of hate crime laws, and even I think this is unfair.

In 2007, according to the FBI, there were 7624 bias crimes reported. Half of those were race-based; 15% were about sexual orientation. In 2010, there were 6,624 bias crimes reported, which included seven murders, and a slightly greater percentage of crimes against gay people—and those assumed to be gay.

And also, when people talk about hate crimes, they forget that about 40% of those events were crimes against property, not people. This is why, for one thing, the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996 happened, but that's just not as sexy to talk about.

But even just talking about bias crime against humans, Keller could have chosen nearly any of the seven murders in 2010. Like Keith Phoenix, who beat Jose Sucuzhanay to death with a baseball bat just because he assumed the victim's brother was his gay lover. He, in fact, pulled his car over to literally beat a stranger to death. It was just another lethal year for straight people to be assumed to be gay. If cases like that aren't indicative that people target people for crimes based on their identity, I don't know what is.

20 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#713)

The typical argument against hate crime legislation is that it's somehow criminalizing thoughts, and that since assault/murder/arson are already illegal, why make hate assault/hate murder/hate arson a different category of thing? Which nicely ignores the fact that the legal system has long drawn a distinction between, say, different degrees of murder, so that the same series of physical actions resulting in someone's death could get a different sentence based on the thoughts that led up to and/or motivated those actions.

There's also the point that if you kill some guy because he wronged you in some way, you probably have a smaller chance of repeating that offense than if you killed some guy because you didn't like his race/religion/sexual orientation/etc., since there are plenty of other members of that race/religion/sexual orientation/etc. who you probably think need killin'.

Rick Gary@facebook (#11,539)

@jfruh There are also plenty of other people who are gonna cut you off in traffic

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

@jfruh I think it also goes something like, "If you murder someone, you clearly hated them, so we can't start having the underlying source or nature of that hate influence the charges or sentencing." Pretty close to what you're refudiating and pretty fuckin' stupid line of reasoning.

Aatom (#74)

Rick Gary@facebook (#11,539)

At least Abe Rosemthal was crazy shit in humorous kind of way

Murgatroid (#2,904)

Right wing nuts take note, the biggest way to make being liberal look as unappealing as possible is to group us alongside Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Murgatroid When exactly did Sully become a liberal? My impression was that he was still conservative, just not insane.

bharath1591 (#231,210)

its really intresting

La Cieca (#1,110)

A solipsist, a Thatcherite and a Quaker walk into bar where they meet Bill Keller.

He says, "Sorry, guys, I'd love to have a drink, but I've got a trend piece to write."

Mr. B (#10,093)

Saying "nearly all of the bias charges were thrown out" in the Ravi case isn't exactly accurate. For the counts that came with multiple questions for the jury to decide, they had to answer in the affirmative on just one of them to result in a conviction on that count. So the Times's lede (sorry; lead) that he was convicted on all counts may have simplified things a little, but it wasn't wrong. The guilty/acquitted breakdown in that Ledger feed is rather misleading. This is all very hair-splitty, but anyway.

saythatscool (#101)

I have zero understanding of the new "bias crime" laws but the ones that I have read immediately strike me as unconstitutionally vague and any portion that would be enforceable strikes me as redundant to preexisting hate crime laws.

@saythatscool Pretty sure bias crime is just a synonym for hate crime.

BadUncle (#153)

@saythatscool FWIW, my misunderstanding of most law is criminal.

saythatscool (#101)

@gnarlytrombone Fair enough, what I really mean is the new set of New Jersy statutes and the 2009 Fed statutes referenced in the post.

RobertT (#231,216)

Choire Sicha, can you please clarify what you meant about the Quakers? I cannot tell if I am misreading that sentence or if you meant that you believe Quakers are opposed to hate crime laws. I know it's only a tangential detail, but as someone raised Quaker I am confused and a bit put off by the comment.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@RobertT When Choire said "Quakers" he meant Wilford Brimley.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@RobertT I'm interested in this as well and am commenting largely so that I will be notified when the answer comes.

Also on the topic of bullying / hate crimes, a certain other site had a pretty Thought Catalog-y post about how bullying's not that bad and I feel oddly proud that I managed to get banned over jeering it. Goodbye, site!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

I never understood why murder was a separate crime from theft. Like, if someone murders you, you will never be able to use any of your stuff again. So it's basically the same as if they stole all of your stuff. Why not just charge them with that?

janevar (#2,912)

Things like this are exactly why I keep reading The Awl. Thanks, c.s.

IanM (#231,388)

Of course victims are sometimes targeted for their identities. I don't think anyone was disputing that. They are also targeted because they have something the perpetrator wants to take, or out of personal revenge, or out of pure wanton sadism. None of these reasons are any more or less acceptable than others to attack someone. The end result is the same – a victim is dead or in the hospital. What does it matter for their ability to get justice exactly what type of ugly thought was in his/her attacker's head at the time, if there were even any thoughts at all? And how can juries and lawyers claim to know exactly what the accused's thoughts and beliefs are?

Yes – it seems pretty clear that someone like Keith Phoenix targeted his victim out of homophobia. Would it have been better if he just liked murdering people for the fun of it, or beat him to death for his iPod? In Ravi's case, it's not at all clear that homophobia was a factor. The jury just decided for Ravi what was in his head. Calling it a hate crime is satisfying, because we all want to hate hate, but what on earth does it actually achieve?

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