Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

A few questions about hate crimes legislation

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | May 17, 2007 9:05 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: anti-queer violence, Billy Jack Gaither, Brandon Teena, death penalty, drug treatment, education policy, Gwen Araujo, hate crimes legislation, health care reform, HIV/AIDS, Marsha P. Johnson, Matthew Shepard, police state, prison industry, Rebecca Wight, sex workers, state-sanctioned murder, violence prevention

Obviously, the US criminal "justice" system is racist, classist, homophobic and transphobic to the core (if you're not sure of this, just take a brief look at who is in prison, who gets the longest sentences, who ends up on death row, and/or how queer or gender-nonconforming prisoners are treated inside).

Why, then, this focus on hate crimes legislation as the supposed answer to anti-queer violence? Who, exactly, will be made safer by this type of faith in law enforcement and the prison industry? Would hate crimes legislation have somehow kept Marsha P. Johnson, Brandon Teena, Billy Jack Gaither, Gwen Araujo, Rebecca Wight or Matthew Shepard alive?

It seems that more of a dent would be made towards fighting bigotry of all forms if those arguing for hate crimes legislation would shift their attention to challenging the systemic violence of the prison industry, which imprisons people of color and poor people, then utilizes their labor at an incredibly reduced cost (slavery, anyone?).

It is heartbreaking when those supposedly fighting against violence start calling for hate crimes sentencing enhancements like the death penalty for those charged in anti-gay, anti-queer or anti-trans murders. The death penalty, which is overwhelmingly applied to people of color and poor people in men's prisons, many of them mentally impaired (as well as the occasional lesbian or gender nonconforming person in a women's prison), could perhaps be defined as the ultimate hate crime. Not only is it murder, but state-sanctioned murder.

So, who exactly is made safer by hate crimes legislation? Maybe the cops, with more funding to attack unarmed people of color, homeless people, sex workers and transwomen. Maybe the prison industry, with more pressure on lawmakers to spend billions on new jails instead of housing, healthcare, education, AIDS services, domestic violence prevention, drug treatment, or violence prevention.

But you, walking down the street in all of your fierceness? I don't think so.

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Eric Georgantes | May 17, 2007 11:24 AM

Is there any particular reason why both aren't reasonably admirable goals?

You raise some interesting points, Mattilda...

I have to admit - and this may get my queer card revoked - until the Donnelly and Ellsworth posts I wasn't a big fan of hate crimes. I tended to fall in the "Don't punish thought - punish actions" camp. The comments sections on those two posts - specifically Melissa and Ellen's comments - really changed my mind.

But you have a different angle to the thorny problem that is bigotry. And it's one I haven't seen around, so I hope your post gets some attention and worthy comments.

While a hate crimes law won't change how society "defends" itself against LGBT criminals, I don't think that's the point. I think you're comparing apples and oranges. I think the situation you are describing points to a much larger incidence of homophobia, transphobia and racism that exists outside of the arena hate crimes are supposed to protect against. It relates to law enforcement and how the rule of law is handled. Hate crimes are more aimed at the general population and how that population is controlled.

Well, and this just goes back to an important point that many of us often forget- acceptance, tolerance, and so forth cannot and will not come through legislation.

Because, honestly, the ignorant folk who commit these types of crimes in the first place are not the kind of people who will be aware that there is a tougher sentence waiting for them, nor do I think they would give a crap in the place.

And, then someone will say- this is about justice not deterring the crime...

And, I will say- in the end, the victim will still be a victim.

Attitudes must change before this legislation would ever be implemented correctly, and by then, the hate crimes bill wouldn't be needed.

I don't even know where to begin in responding to this post, because there are A LOT of issues here--hate crimes, hate crimes legislation, prosecution of hate crimes, sentencing re: hate crimes, prejudice in law enforcement, prejudice in the judicial system, prejudice in prisons, violence in prisons, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism--all of which are casually thrown together and connected, or disconnected, in ways that aren't necessarily accurate.

For example, the post seems to suggest that it's not possible to advocate for hate crimes legislation, against the death penalty in all cases, and on behalf of prison populations. I assure you it is; I do all three.

So I'm going to respond to what appears to be the most pertinent question(s) here: "Why, then, this focus on hate crimes legislation as the supposed answer to anti-queer violence? Who, exactly, will be made safer by this type of faith in law enforcement and the prison industry?"

Talking about hate crimes legislation and an "answer to anti-queer violence" as if they are mutually exclusive things seems to suggest an incomplete understanding of what hate crimes legislation actually entails. Empowering local law enforcement by offering better resources to prosecute hate crimes and education to law enforcement to be aware of and concerned with hate crime (as does the most recent legislation passed by Congress) will inevitably reduce anti-queer violence within the empowered communities.

For example, in 2000, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department wanted to do something to better protect against hate crimes, so they created the
Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. They invited GLBT and allied volunteers help guide and operate the unit, educating officers about the culture of the community and its needs--and, last year, the GLLU won an Innovations in American Government Award for its work.

If every metropolitan police force was given the resources to do something like that, it would absolutely make a difference in reducing anti-queer violence, simply by creating officers more responsive to it. Bigots and bashers who know they can get away with it are a huge problem, particularly in smaller communities--precisely the communities that stand to benefit most from hate crimes legislation.

"Who, exactly, will be made safer by this type of faith in law enforcement and the prison industry?"--Well, all of us. Hate crimes legislation means that from the top down, such behavior will not be tolerated. Not by the federal government, not by the FBI, not by federal prisons, not by local law enforcement, and not by citizens. It changes the culture of apathy, in which hatred inevitably flourishes.

Ellen Andersen | May 17, 2007 12:20 PM

"So, who exactly is made safer by hate crimes legislation? Maybe the cops, with more funding to attack unarmed people of color, homeless people, sex workers and transwomen."

The logic of this escapes me. Are you implying that people of color, homeless people, sex workers and transfolk are the one who are committing hate crimes based on disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity and therefore the ones most likely to be investigated by the police? Or are you instead implying that the police will enforce laws selectively, pursuing cases more vigorously when the "right" victim (i.e., white, middle-class) is attacked by the "right" perpetrator (i.e., poor, nonwhite)?

If it's the former, I haven't seen any data to suggest that the homeless and sex workers, for example, are more likely to commit violence based on hate. If it's the latter, there's certainly data out there supporting the contention that some cases are pursued more vigorously than others, based on the racial and class characteristics of the victims and the offenders. But that's true of crimes across the gamut, and no one's suggesting that we roll back laws prohibiting homicide because enforcement is uneven. (On the other hand, many people, myself included, have called for the end to the death penalty on precisely those grounds.)

If you want to make the argument that racism, sexism, classism and homophobia are endemic in our society, including in the justice system, I'm right behind you. And if you want to make the argument that "we" should focus our efforts on mitigating this systemic set of 'isms, I got your back there as well. But so-called "hate crimes" laws are an attempt to do just that -- to send a message to both potential perpetrators and potential victims that crimes designed to frighten people away from exercising their civil rights will not be tolerated. In theory, that's a message that cops should get as clearly as John Q. Public.

Thanks for all these great comments! A quick answer to Ellen, before I rush outside and think about the rest... what I am saying is that the police are consistently and systemically attacking unarmed people of color, homeless people, sex workers and transwomen, so to give them more funding to supposedly prevent violence is misguided...

More later...

Well, I promised Mattilda I would jump in on this one, and even though my middle-child syndrome makes me want to run away from any and all conflict, I said I would so now I will.

I think some people have different experiences with the police than others. If we were watching the video of those police officers in LA beating up on nonviolent protesters on May Day (who were Latino, surprise surprise), or were listening to those who were arrested "pre-emptively" in NYC before the Republican National Convention so that they couldn't demonstrate or occupy public space, or because they looked like they might cause some trouble, or were reading up on the crack down on and framing up of the Black Panthers to quiet down people of minority races, then we might have a different opinion of who the police are. Remember these people also broke up gay bars in teh 60's and 70's so often that only the mob would open one up (hence the reason for Stonewall) and still play games of "capture the fag" by entrapping gay men and then making up charges against us. These are the same people who rarely take crimes against queer people seriously.

They have historically been around for the benefit of the elite so that they don't have to be bothered by the rest of us.

So I can totally understand where an inherent distrust of the police is coming from. What I don't see is why that should be accepted as the way they are. Can't they be trained to reflect the values of society?

They are the violent arm of a locus of power (the government), but that isn't the only locus of power in our society. Much of the violence against women (I would guess most, but I don't have numbers here) is perpetuated by men who aren't acting on behalf of the government. Is it wrong for society to prosecute those men so that women have a better chance of living free from violence? I see hate crimes legislation as the same thing. If there isn't legislation against it, then the government is tacitly endorsing hate crimes, delegating their violence against queers, if you will, and wouldn't such legislation be a way to stop it?

On the money issue, the amount of money that comes with this legislation isn't enough to build new prisons. And if we really want to reduce the prison population, then we should start by legalizing pot. So many more people are in prison because of non-violent drug offenses than will ever be there because of hate crimes enhancements. And I'm not sure if the death penalty was sought in those cases that you mentioned, and if it was, if hate crimes legislation somehow played a role.

Oh, well. All the best, Mattilda, and thanks for bringing this up. This is a discussion we need to have because I think that we should always be skeptical about expanding the power of the police and court system. I just think that this expansion changes the nature of that power. but I could be wrong; it's happened before.

A few more thoughts...

First, Bil, I agree with your previous opinion to "punish thoughts, not actions," which is perhaps the strict legal opposition to hate crimes legislation, but I would go further and say that the system responsible for meting judgment and punishment is so monstrous that it's a terrible mistake to rely on that same system for supposed redress, AND there is no way to combat violence (anti-queer or otherwise) unless we struggle against those same systems that hate crimes legislation relies on. I don't think you can rely on institutions that are racist, classist, ableist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobia, etc. in order to fight racism, classism, ableism, etc.

And this transitions to Melissa's conclusion that "all of us" will be made safer by hate crimes legislation. Melissa writes:

Hate crimes legislation means that from the top down, such behavior will not be tolerated. Not by the federal government, not by the FBI, not by federal prisons, not by local law enforcement, and not by citizens. It changes the culture of apathy, in which hatred inevitably flourishes.

I disagree. I think hate crimes legislation is a cosmetic change that actually allows systemic violence, that of the federal government, the FBI, prisons, law enforcement, the US military, etc. to go unchecked, becoming more invisible while supposedly challenging "random" violence on the streets, etc. This actually furthers apathy.

Alex, you do a great job of talking about the systemic violence of the police, yet you are optimistic about the possibilities for training cops to "reflect the values of society." Unfortunately, I do think that cops reflect the values of society, i.e. racism, classism, transphobia, etc. Take racism, for example -- how many decades have cops been trained not to act in a racist manner, yet across the country we see cops operating as gangs of thugs intent on gunning down unarmed people of color like it's the latest video game. I think that when you give someone a gun and you tell them they have absolute power to defend the power brokers
at any cost, then brutal, systemic violence is the only possibility.

Furthermore, while federal hate crimes legislation currently applies to race, color, religion or national origin, has this made life safer for Mexican immigrants on US borders, black people in US prisons, Muslims, Bengalis or Sikhs? In other words, while hate crimes legislation may benefit those most able to assimilate, it fails to benefit anyone else.

Sorry for jumping in on this thread late -- I've just discovered Bilerico, thanks to Mattilda! Thanks so much for this post.

Mattilda wrote
"there is no way to combat violence (anti-queer or otherwise) unless we struggle against those same systems that hate crimes legislation relies on. I don't think you can rely on institutions that are racist, classist, ableist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobia, etc. in order to fight racism, classism, ableism, etc."

I just finished reading Our Enemies in Blue, Kristian Williams' history of the modern U.S. police force, which traces its roots from Slave Patrols and urban outfits designed to control the "dangerous" working classes. I was at the May Day march in LA to witness firsthand how the LAPD repressed and abused an all-ages, politically heterogeneous, mostly people-of-color crowd. I could go on ...

I am also a white, class-privileged person in the U.S. who for most of my life managed to not think much at all about the U.S. police system -- I imagined cops were there to protect and serve me if I needed them to, and that was it. For years, because I did not see or experience police violence/repression, I did not understand how very deeply racist, classist oppression is embedded in the modern policing system. And it's deep. And pervasive.

I don't hold out much hope that queers or any other marginalized group might reform that system to protect and serve marginalized people -- that's simply not what it's designed to do, not how it works.

Mattilda has often remarked (and I'm paraphrasing wildly here) that part of what's tragic about gay gentrification is that queer folks, as outsiders who in various ways were unwanted or didn't fit in other spaces, might have created neighborhoods/living spaces that offered some kind of beautiful alternative to assimilation, homogeneity, protection of wealthy people's property at the expense of other people's lives/health/freedom/basic needs ... instead of gentrified queer neighborhoods that benefit only the most privileged and assimilated queer folks at the expense of the most marginalized, we might now have models of supportive, mixed-class communities offering beautiful alternatives to the violence and isolation of mainstream culture. Alas.

I think we can look at the push for hate-crimes legislation in a similar way. As queer folks who care about challenging and ending violence, we might be collectively working toward envisioning new ways to ensure freedom from violence for * everyone * in a community. (Indeed, some people are. Thinking about the prison-industrial complex, the TGI Justice Project comes to mind.) Instead, I fear, many queer folks are putting a lot of time and energy into a supposed solution that will serve mostly to shore up the power of a racist, classist institution, and then finding themselves with less time and energy to brainstorm, imagine, and create alternatives.

with love,


Thanks, Jessica for your beautiful and inspiring comment -- yes, we absolutely do need to be brainstorming, imagining and creating alternatives!

Eric Stnaley | May 29, 2007 5:42 AM

Ahh, hate-crimes legislation, it's the new pink, no? I think that for us to more fully understand why HCL will never make queer/trans folks and people of color safer we might want a historical understanding of the prison industrial complex (PIC).

At the end of slavery the large amount of now "free" Black labor flooded the labor market and threatened to destabilize the transition from a slave economy of the south to a capitalist economy. The numbers of black folks running away from the plantation of their former lives of terror also threatened to slow down or stop crop production of cotton, tobacco and feed crops which would in turn have slowed Northern mill production. The convict-lease system, and the newly passed anti-vagrancy acts worked together to arrest many freed Blacks for, more or less, being free. They were then leased back to some of the very plantations where they were previously enslaved. This is, more or less, the birth of the American prison, as we know it today.

As Angela Davis has shown me, anti-lynching laws of the south, which are the ancestors to modern HCL, in most cases, ended up being used against Black folks. Because of the ambiguity of the laws, and all law for that matter, they were written to prohibit the congregation of a specific number (depending on county) of people in a public place. Not surprisingly, many Black youth in the south who where just meeting with friends found themselves imprisoned by the very laws that were made to "protect them".

We know punishment (imprisonment, torture, execution) does not work as a "deterrent". If this were the case, following the massive waves of incarceration in the 1980s and the subsequent prison growth, there should now be little to no "crime" today. So then, we must continue to ask, why prisons?

Today we have the continued mass incarceration of people of color, trans people (specifically trans women) and other folks on the queer spectrum. Why is it that we never ask why the most marginal people in the US are re-brutalized under the PIC? Also, where is our historical memory, did we forget Stonewall, or the centuries of terror we have experienced at the hands of the police under the direction of the State?

No amount of "sensitivity training" (rainbow bullets ?) can undo the innate racism, homophobia and transphobia that IS the prison industrial complex. Working to make more just the current prison system is as productive as a challenging white supremacy workshop at a Klan rally. We must continue to struggle to dismantle the PIC in all its forms, from gay police officer associations to hate-crimes enhancement legislation, a police state waving a rainbow flag is no less violence than the good-old red, white and blue.

thank you mattilda-- i always love reading what you have to say. and thank you eric and jessica. it's inspiring to see other queer folk thinking along the same lines.

this makes me think of INCITE! women of color against violence. basically one of my biggest issues is that we have anti-violence (hate crimes, rape, domestic abuse) movements and we have anti-prison (state violence) movements that are largely working against each other right now.

the point is that it is SELFISH for queer people to demand their rights as an oppressed group in a way that steps on somebody else's struggle.

all of our struggles are connected. state violence and violence against queer people are inseparable.

and i think mattilda is right-- hate crime legislation does further empower law enforcement and the prison industrial complex. do we really want to empower our oppressors?

legislation really can't do much. but if we're going to push for legislation, why not push for laws decriminalizing queer self-defence? that would certainly do something in the case of the New Jersey 7.

much love,

p.s. y'all should check out my speech at the trans day of remembrance, along a similar line...