Tackling hate crimes: Attorney general, local leaders discuss new bills

It’s past time to acknowledge that hate crimes are on the rise in Virginia, said Attorney General Mark Herring at a roundtable discussion with approximately 20 local leaders. Photo by Eze Amos It’s past time to acknowledge that hate crimes are on the rise in Virginia, said Attorney General Mark Herring at a roundtable discussion with approximately 20 local leaders. Photo by Eze Amos

Attorney General Mark Herring has spent the past few years studying the issue of hate crimes and white supremacist violence across the commonwealth and advocating for new legislation to combat it. On December 5—coincidentally during the state’s murder trial against the neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd on August 12, 2017—Herring hosted a roundtable discussion on both topics in Charlottesville.

Approximately 20 local leaders representing a bevy of faith communities, cultural groups, government, and law enforcement gathered in the basement of the First Baptist Church to participate.

Herring, who sat at the head of the table in front of a Christmas tree with big red bows, kicked off his discussion with a few statistics.

“It is past time to acknowledge that hate crimes are on the rise,” he said, noting that Virginia State Police have recorded a 64 percent increase in hate crimes since 2013. There were more than 200 committed in the state last year.

Leaders at every level should condemn the hate and bigotry that “we all sense in our own communities,” he said.

And “the state needs to pair those words with actions,” he added, as he introduced multiple bills already on the agenda for next year’s General Assembly session. Last year, he pushed two similar bills, including one that would punish white supremacists as domestic terrorists, but the Republican-led Committee for Courts of Justice declined to hear it.

One of the new bills would give localities the ability to ban firearms at permitted events, such as the 2017 Unite the Right rally in which paramilitary groups lined the streets of Charlottesville with semi-automatic rifles swung over their shoulders.

But that legislation, if passed, still won’t satisfy some local leaders.

“It’s not the permitted event. It’s the every day,” said Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney, who wants to be able to prohibit guns at any time or place within the city, regardless of whether a permitted event is taking place.

She noted that at the Key Recreation Center, for instance, the city doesn’t allow its employees to carry guns, but any guest is more than welcome to come in packing heat. Brackney then called Virginia a “very strong Second Amendment state.”

“I believe people’s minds are changing,” countered Herring. He promised the chief, “We’ll keep working on it.”

At this roundtable, and at three he previously held across the state, he asked participants to give examples of hate crimes that they or other folks in their communities have experienced.

“This year, we have just been flooded,” said Janette Martin, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP. She gave an example of a woman who keeps calling the police on her black neighbor for seemingly no reason. “It’s obvious what her motive is,” she added.

Rachel Schmelkin, the rabbi educator at Congregation Beth Israel, said their congregation has faced several anti-Semitic incidents over the past few years. She described an alert the synagogue received on August 12, 2017, in which white supremacists had sent out a message that said, “Let’s go toward those Jewish monsters at 3pm.”

Just a few weeks ago, on the anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass—when Nazis in Germany orchestrated a massive attack against Jews on November 9, 1938—Schmelkin said someone drew swastikas on a shop near the synagogue. At 8:30pm, she and her husband went to CBI to “check every inch of the building” to make sure they hadn’t gotten the same treatment.

“We have to bear the burden of that,” she said, and added that Deacon Don Gathers also walks around the synagogue late some Saturday nights just to check on it.

After the October mass shooting of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Schmelkin said she wanted to debrief with the high school students who attend CBI.

“They were all really quiet,” she told Herring. “A number of them said they were relieved because they expected it would have happened here. I think that’s indicative of how unsettled our children have felt since August 12.”

Schmelkin said they now have security outside the synagogue, “almost 24/7.”

At the local mosque, Islamic Center of Central Virginia outreach secretary Noor Khalidi said law enforcement is also present for major events, such as Friday night prayer sessions.

They haven’t received any threats. “We’re sort of holding our breath, though,” she said.

After meditating on that comment for a moment, Herring said, “No one in our commonwealth or our country should feel that way.”

Whats on the table

When Attorney General Mark Herring stopped by Charlottesville last week to talk about local hate crimes and white supremacist violence, he also wanted to offer details on five upcoming bills that address those topics. This is what they hope to accomplish.

  • Update Virginia’s definition of “hate crime” to include crimes committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability
  • Allow the attorney general to prosecute hate crimes through a network of multi-jurisdictional grand juries, instead of at the local level
  • Prohibit paramilitary activity
  • Give law enforcement better tools to identify and intervene in the actions of violent white supremacist and hate groups, making it harder for the groups to operate
  • Close the loophole that allows people convicted of hate crimes the right to possess a gun

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