Campaign Against Hate Crimes Wins Widespread Support


by Diane Minor,
Communications Director

After pressing for over a decade, NOW scored a victory in its campaign to expand the federal hate crimes law to include hate crimes based on sex, sexual orientation and disability. When the Clinton administration in November backed those changes, activists garnered both political and tactical support for a campaign that now moves to Congress.

The administration's announcement came during a day-long White House Conference on Hate Crimes Nov. 11, which NOW President Patricia Ireland attended and local activists viewed via satellite downlinks. It was held days after top NOW leaders met with Attorney General Janet Reno to stress the importance of expanding not only the prosecution, but also the documentation of these crimes.

During the meeting, Attorney General Reno said she had been stymied when preparing a speech on violence against women because she could not find reliable statistics, according to NOW President Patricia Ireland. "When the attorney general of the United States herself cannot get reliable data, we know we have a serious problem," Ireland said.

Bonnie Campbell, director of the Office of Violence Against Women at the Justice Department, said at the same meeting that the largest number of complaints her office receives are from women who find state and local authorities fail or refuse to enforce the law, especially restraining orders. Campbell said her office is also concerned about complaints that law enforcement personnel cover up hate crimes against women, citing cases in which police evidence and reports disappear before the women can bring their claims.

During the White House hate crimes conference, several speakers countered concerns that it is not practical for federal agents to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on sex and sexual orientation.

"One thing I know we'll see when Congress comes to debate these laws is a question about hierarchy of the categories and whether or not it makes sense to include gays and lesbians, for instance ... or when we talk about gender and people say rape is not commited on the basis of hate you'd have to go, 'Oh yeah? Maybe you haven't been there, " said Sheila Kuehl, Speaker Pro Tem of the California Assembly and an open lesbian.

When President Clinton said activists will have to be prepared for the criticism that the proposed changes are " just creating a whole new category of federal crimes being prosecuted at the state and local level anyway," he got a vigorous response from Arturo Venegas, Sacramento, Calif., police chief.

"Both the federal government and state governments, contrary to popular belief, hire bright people who can sort out whether or not to prosecute at the federal level or in state courts," Venegas said. "But (the federal government has) resources that you may not have at the state and local level. Partnerships work a heck of a lot better (for) the folks who may only have limited resources in some communities, who cannot afford in-depth investigations."

In her opening remarks, Kuehl provided strong support for including hate crimes based on both sex and sexual orientation. "For the gay and lesbian community hatred and violence has been a particular nightmare. Two women hiking in Appalachia were found dead the next morning, bludgeoned while camping. What was their crime? They were probably seen holding hands looking out at a beautiful view. For that they were murdered ... As a woman I have known just about since I was old enough to cross the street that women all risk violence just because we're women."

The changes the administration supports are contained in a bill introduced in the Senate by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and in the House by Reps. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Bill McCollum, R-Fla.

The White House also announced plans to assign an extra 50 federal investigators and prosecutors to hate crimes; to establish a network among federal, state and local officials who will share information; to add task forces through all 94 U.S. Attorneys' offices; and to impose tougher penalties for housing-related hate crimes.


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