Indiana hate crimes law needed now, not later

Nine bills were introduced at the start of the Indiana General Assembly’s 2019 legislative session in January that would, if passed, enact hate crimes legislation. One of these bills, Senate Bill 418, however, failed to make its way through the Indiana Senate. SB 418 was one of the more promising bills, and if it had been passed, the legislation would have “allowed judges to give tougher sentences for crimes that were motivated by factors such as race, religion, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation,” according to an article from The Indianapolis Star titled “Indiana lawmakers kill hate crimes bill again.”

At the time of this publication, Indiana was one of five states that did not already have some form of a hate crimes law, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Indiana ranks with South Carolina, Arkansas, Wyoming and Georgia in not having a hate crimes law, although Arkansas and South Carolina do have laws that criminalize interfering with religious worship. The situation is downright frightening when you consider the number of hate groups in Indiana. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are currently 31 organizations that are operating in the state that have been identified as hate groups. This includes neo-Nazis, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and white nationalist groups.

Believing that hate crimes do not happen here is downright ridiculous and dangerous. In fact, hate crimes have happened here, whether or not we legally label them as hate crimes. In July 2018, The Indianapolis Star reported in the article “Anti-Semitic Graffiti Found at Carmel Synagogue,” that anti-Semitic graffiti was found at the Congregation Shaarey Tefilla, a Jewish synagogue in Carmel, Ind. Those responsible had spray painted two Nazi flags, including swastikas and two iron crosses on the synagogue’s property. This horrific act is just one of the many anti-Semitic acts that have occurred across the state. In 2017, 55 hate crimes were reported in Indiana, according to an article from FOX 59 titled “FBI Statistics Show Hate Crimes Are on the Rise, Indiana Feeling the Effects.”

Graphic by Justyn Clark

One of the most well-known victims of a hate crime is Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in October 1998. Shepard’s death sparked an intense push for hate crimes legislation across the country, eventually leading to the passage of a federal hate crimes law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in 2009.

Shepard was a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who went to a bar in Laramie, Wyo., where he met two men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, according to a BBC article titled “Matthew Shepard: the Murder that Changed America.” According to the article, McKinney said in a statement to police that he and Henderson planned to “act like they were gay to try to gain Matthew’s confidence.”  The men robbed Shepard at gunpoint and drove out of town into a prairie, where they tied him to a fence and pistol-whipped him 19 to 21 times, according to the BBC article. They then left him tied to the fence, where he remained for 18 hours until a teenager who was riding his bike saw what he thought was at first a scarecrow. Although Shepard was found and taken to a hospital, he died of his wounds five days later. According to the article, both of Shepard’s murderers are serving two consecutive life terms for kidnapping and murder.

Shepard’s case sparked national outrage, according to the article, especially when members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested his funeral. Although what happened to Matthew Shepard occurred more than 20 years ago, it still resonates today.

Another major case that sparked national outrage was the murder of James Byrd Jr., an African-American man, on June 7, 1998 in Jasper, Texas. According to an article from the Dallas Morning News, “James Byrd’s horrifying death still haunts East Texas town two decades later,” Byrd, who was walking home, had accepted a ride from three white men. In the article, Billy Rowles, who was the Jasper County Sheriff at the time, said that at some point that evening, the three men, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King, had jumped and beaten Byrd. The three men chained Byrd to the back of their truck and dragged him down a country road for three miles. According to the article, Berry was sentenced to life in prison, Brewer was sentenced to death and executed in 2011 and King was sentenced to death and is awaiting execution.

It has become increasingly apparent that not only are such acts going to continue, it is just a matter of time before another one occurs that sparks outrage. Many of the groups affected by acts of hate often have to deal with offensive slurs, prejudice and stereotypes. This type of bullying has become a norm for them, but that should not be the case.

In the United States, everyone is expected to have freedom. You should have freedom of speech, but not the right to intimidate, assault or murder those who are different. You should be able to walk down any street—regardless of your race, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, gender identity and/or sexual orientation—without fear of being intimidated or assaulted in some way.

We live in an incredibly divisive time right now. My hope is that we will be able to pass hate crimes legislation here in Indiana, without any blood being spilled. However, as time goes on, I am starting to think that maybe the only way for the legislation to pass is for someone in Indiana to become a victim of a brutal act such as those inflicted upon Shepard or Byrd. Yet, another part of me acknowledges that if Indiana really wanted to pass the law, legislators could have done it after Shepard’s death in 1998, or when the federal law was passed in 2009.

I am not a politician, but as a Hoosier who often has heard that people from Indiana have “Hoosier hospitality,” I cannot understand how we can have hospitality if we do not protect those of our citizens who are most at risk from prejudice and violence. It seems as if the words “Hoosier” and “hospitality” are in opposition to each other—as if we could hypothetically go out of our way to help a motorist with car troubles, but then push the person off a cliff the second we find out that he or she does not like basketball. If we want to continue to live up to our reputation and the idea of “Hoosier hospitality,” we need to take a stand against anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia and racism by passing hate crimes legislation, and we need to do it now.