Commentary: Utah needs an enforceable hate crimes law

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Daniel Thatcher, R- West Valley City, celebrates the initial approval of his hate crimes bill with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. Thatcher's SB103 bill would allow judges to increase penalties for a crime if a defendant is convicted of targeting someone based on ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. A person must first be convicted of a crime before additional penalties would apply. There have been no successful convictions under the state's current hate crimes law.

In 1915, Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of Atlanta’s National Pencil Company, was wrongly convicted of murder. Following a trial steeped in anti-Semitism, Frank was kidnapped from prison, driven seven hours across Georgia, and lynched in a park. The merciless mob included a former governor, as well as former and current mayors and sheriffs who posed for photos with Frank’s dangling corpse.

During Frank’s sham trial, shouts of “hang the Jew” roared from the gallery and were reported nationally. His murder — a vicious spectacle animated by anti-Semitic scapegoating — conveyed a message of hate. It provoked the exodus of nearly half of Atlanta’s Jewish community, the largest in the south at that time. Many who remained there concealed their Jewish identity for decades.

Too often, Jews have received hateful messaging from our neighbors. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) most recent audit, which corresponds to FBI reports, anti-Semitic incidents nationally rose nearly 60 percent in 2017 – the second highest level ever recorded. This is no solitary event, as ADL’s 2016 audit measured a 34 percent increase over the prior year as well. The 2018 statistics are pending, but last year will surely be remembered for the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history, the mass murder at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.

Sadly, Utah is not immune to this hatred. In 2012, Macon Openshaw opened fire at Patrice’s synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami. Lacking an effective hate crime law, local authorities faced the pitiful prospect of charging him with a misdemeanor. Only a federal court could mete out a more appropriate punishment.

There has also been an increase in white supremacist recruitment and vandalism in Utah and across the country. Bigots have targeted the Jewish Community Center with threats and vandalism. Swastikas and menacing allusions to the Holocaust have appeared at many locations, including the University of Utah, Liberty Park and public schools. We lack a meaningful mechanism for the state to respond.

Anyone from a vulnerable community (including Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, Latter-day Saints, LGBTQ and Jews) knows the terror and intolerance that hate crimes communicate. The murders of Matthew Shepard, Elder Joseph Standing, James Byrd, Jr., and Leo Frank illustrate how violent bigotry reverberates through society.

The grim warning of Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller resonates. In the aftermath of the Holocaust he lamented, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Hate crime laws increase penalties for those convicted of crimes motivated by bias. They convey the message that intentionally selecting a victim based on a core personal characteristic is a heinous act that cannot be tolerated and merits enhanced punishment.

Let us raise our voices against those who seek to terrorize and intimidate. The majority of Utahns agree that we should pass a meaningful hate crime statute. We thank the Utah Senate for passing SB 103 and call on the Utah House of Representatives to support this critical legislation to protect all Utahns.

Rep. Patrice Arent | Utah House of Representatives, D-Millcreek

Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, represents District 36 in the Utah House of Representatives and is co-president of the National Association of Jewish Legislators.

Seth Brysk is the Central Pacific Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Seth Brysk is the central pacific regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.