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by Jessica Carreras
Much discussion and celebration at the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes’ 2010 Response to Hate Conference, held Sept. 16 in Lansing, centered around the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law last October by President Barack Obama. The act both strengthened current federal hate crimes law and added gender identity, sexual orientation and disability to the list of protected classes.
The reach of the law, the importance of it and what it meant in terms of enforcement in hate crimes cases on the local and federal level all came up in various parts of the conference. Judy Levy, who heads up the civil rights division for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Michigan, discussed the specifics of the act during the day’s LGBT-focused breakout session, and Eastern District Attorney Barbara McQuade made mention of it as well when addressing attendees.
But perhaps the most rousing speech of the day, which focused largely on the Hate Crimes Act, was given by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice Tom Perez, the conference’s keynote speaker.
Perez related not only the 13-year journey the bill took to becoming law, but also the pain he felt as a prosecuting attorney before it was passed.
“I prosecuted a lot of folks, and I refer to the term “equal opportunity bigot” – they hate African Americans, they hate Latinos, they hate Jews, the hate Muslims, they hate everyone who is different, including people who are gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual,” Perez shared. “There is nothing worse as a prosecutor than looking someone in the eye and saying, ‘Your son or daughter has been the victim of a brutal gay-bashing incident, and there’s not a darn thing we can do about it, because we lack the jurisdiction.’
“But now, the good news is that we are here and we can help and we are helping.”
The key, he added, is educating communities, individuals, law enforcement officials and attorneys that the federal government’s civil rights division wants to help prosecute hate crimes – especially in states that have no local protections for communities like LGBT people. Michigan is one such state.
Nonprofit organizations, he said, are crucial to that effort. “Our community-based organizations are indispensable partners in our efforts to combat hate crimes,” Perez insisted. “We know that sometimes we have issues when Tom Perez says, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Perez. I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ That doesn’t always resonate in certain communities and so we recognize the bridge that is our nonprofit partners.
“That is a critical component to combating hate crimes.”
Also important, Perez added, is using prosecution as only one tool in the arsenal to combatting hate crimes.
“We must have a holistic strategy that includes prosecution, that includes prevention, that includes education, that includes training, that includes the use of other civil tools at our disposal,” he said. “That’s what we’re thinking about and that’s what we’re implementing at the Department of Justice.”
One of the most important prevention tactics, Perez insisted, is teaching youth before they become adults who will commit hate crimes.
“I spend a lot of time in middle schools and people often wonder, ‘What’s the assistant attorney general for civil rights doing in middle schools across America?'” he shared. “I have learned from the experience of prosecuting hate crimes that today’s bullies are often tomorrow’s civil rights defendants. I don’t want to wait for (that). I want to prevent them from becoming tomorrow’s civil rights defendants by getting into the middle schools today.”
He added vehemently, “I’m the father of three … and they have a right as students and I have a right as a parent to know that when children go to school, they’re going to go to a safe and nurturing environment.”
The good news, Perez explained, is that organizations and communities interested in stopping hate crimes and promoting civil rights for all – including LGBT people – now have a support system in the federal government, that includes Perez and his team, as well as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama.
“Civil rights is not simply an academic issue for Eric Holder, or for President Obama. This is something that they care about to their core,” Perez assured attendees of the hate crimes conference. “We will use every tool in our law enforcement arsenal – enforcement, prevention, the bully pulpit. We must make sure we speak forcefully – as this president has done, as this attorney general has done – to tell America that our diversity is our greatest strength.”