Michelle Quist: A hate crimes law is a way to move forward

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Freedom Rider" Joan Trumpauer Mulholland poses next to a photo of herself from her time as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s. Mulholland was the featured speaker as Archie Archuleta was honored with the Albert Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award by the Salt lake branch of the NAACP, Friday, October 27, 2017.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

— Lilla Watson

February, of course, is Black History Month — a necessary reminder of our shameful past, our precarious present and our hopeful future.

I’ve written about the inspiring words of Frederick Douglass before. Douglass grew up a slave in Maryland, taught himself to read and write, escaped to New York and then spent a life-well-lived fighting for equality and justice for his black brothers and sisters.

Douglass poignantly reminds us that not everyone enjoys the freedoms and independence we celebrate in this country:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, recently introduced a resolution in the Utah House removing references to slavery in the Utah Constitution. It’s about time. The resolution deletes a provision that currently allows slavery as punishment for a crime. How embarrassing that such reference still exists.

The House passed the resolution unanimously, while Joan Trumpauer Mulholland stood by watching.

Mulholland is an iconic civil rights activist. She was a young woman when she was pictured sitting at the infamous Woolworth lunch counter while white men and women harassed and assaulted her. She was a “Freedom Rider” who participated in more than 50 sit-ins and demonstrations. She, also, has led a life-well-lived.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, has been trying to pass hate crimes legislation in Utah for three years now. Current Utah law is ineffective. After an attack on a Latino father and his son late last year by a man yelling that he wanted to kill a Mexican, prosecutors were unable to bring any additional charges.

Over a year ago a man was charged with assault after yelling “n-----” and “get out of here” to a boy on a scooter before zapping his father with a stun device.

In other words, these things happen here, even in Utah.

Hate crime legislation is intended to enhance criminal punishment for crimes motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin or disability. It usually allows a one-step enhancement for an overt, obvious, action between the usually protected speech or expression and the actual crime.

In America, we don’t criminalize thought or belief or even most speech and expression. But when those thoughts and expressions become violent, they are crimes. Hate crimes are crimes against an entire community. They are meant to send a message to the entire community, and therefore they are crimes against society. They deserve enhanced punishment because their effects reverberate beyond just the single victim.

I trust that juries can decide the difference between a thought crime and an actual crime motivated by hate.

Many believe that the legislation will finally pass this year. That will be something to celebrate.

And now, we have one additional tool to help efforts against hate crimes. The Salt Lake Tribune has joined a national effort to document hate crimes. With the independent, nonprofit news organization ProPublica, the program – Documenting Hate – will collect and analyze incidents of purported hate crimes in Utah. The effort could shed light on the extent of the problem in Utah, and the nation, which could then result in more effective prosecution as well as policy creation.

There’s a lot we can do to combat racism. Mostly, though, it starts and ends with us. Be aware of your own implicit bias. Speak up if you witness racism. And empathize with those who experience it often.

It’s the least we can do.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.