One of these hate crimes is not like the others

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 · 22 Comments »

The big news today on the progress-of-civilization front is that President Obama has signed the new hate crimes bill into law. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expands federal law to cover hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.

Yes, gender really is on the list; it really is included. If you’re like me, you might feel compelled to check the language of the bill to make sure, since there seems to be a near-blackout in the media on that aspect of the legislation. “Gay hate crimes bill,” the papers are calling it; news articles re-tell the tragic story of Matthew Shepard; gay rights groups are quoted for their reactions to this historic moment. In his remarks at the signing ceremony, President Obama mentioned the thousands of hate crimes that have been committed against gays and lesbians, and talked about having the freedom to walk down the street hand-in-hand with the person you love. No word at all on violence against women.

Even the New York Times, our so-called paper of record, led off with this:

President Obama signed a hate crimes bill into law on Wednesday, telling an audience at the White House that the provision would “strengthen the protections against crimes based on the color of your skin, the faith in your heart, or the place of your birth.”

The law expands the definition of violent federal hate crimes to those committed because of a victim’s sexual orientation. Under existing federal law, hate crimes are defined as those motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin.

The Times article doesn’t mention gender at all.

So you can see why I started to get a little nervous today, wondering if somehow “gender” had actually been removed from the final bill. Christ, I thought, did they just take it out?

No; as far as I can tell, it’s still in there. The language of the bill doesn’t appear to have changed since it was introduced in the Senate, and the Anti-Defamation League’s handy little summary on the bill’s provisions is unequivocal. So, gender is in!

But here’s the real question: will it matter?

The problem, as I’m sure you already know if you’re reading this blog, is that there is an overwhelming bias against acknowledging that hate crimes against women even exist. Male violence against women — battery, assault, rape, murder — is so pervasive, so interwoven into the very fabric of patriarchal society, that people resist seeing it for what it is. Hey, that’s not some freaky exotic hate crime! protests the confused patriarchal tool. That’s just life!

This is why states have been so slow to include gender as a hate-crime category. And it’s why, even in those states that do include gender, very few cases are prosecuted. California, for example, has gender hate crime on the books, but largely ignores gender as a criterion in its front-line law enforcement policies and training materials. In Massachusetts, the Attorney General’s office ruled that “gender-based hate crimes require at least two previous restraining orders issued to protect two different domestic partners,” a measure that seems clearly designed to protect normal male hatred of women as, well, normal.

Even when the crime in question is unmistakably an act of hatred towards women-as-a-group, people simply refuse to make the call. George Sodini: dude fills up page after page in his diary with misogynistic ranting, spells out in no uncertain terms his burning resentment of womankind, and sprays 50 bullets at random into a room full of strangers. And the papers call him “unlucky in love.”

Which is not to say, of course, that all male violence against women constitutes a hate crime. Where to draw the line, though, is an interesting question. The usual approach is to argue that most male-on-female violence will not make the cut. For example, the ADL is all about reassurance that the status quo will endure:

After studying the statutes in which gender is included, ADL came to the conclusion that the inclusion of gender has not overwhelmed the reporting system, nor has it distracted the criminal justice system from vigorous action against traditional hate-based crimes…It is also important to realize that there has not been an overwhelming number of gender-based crimes reported as an extension of domestic violence and rape cases.

As if that’s a good thing.

Feminists tend to take a more expansive view of the possibilities. Kathy Rodgers of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund addressed this back in 1998, when Congress was considering an earlier version of the hate crimes bill (yeah, it’s been a long time coming). In her testimony at a Congressional hearing, Rodgers gave some examples of what might constitute a hate crime against women:

The following are a few examples of gender-based bias crimes for which federal authority under Section 245 might provide criminal redress:

  • A woman was battered by her husband for many years. He had battered his former wife and former girlfriends as well. He refused to allow his wife to work, stating that women belong in the home and that he wouldn’t tolerate his wife working. She went to the police on numerous occasions, but they responded in only a perfunctory way because they were good friends with her husband. They repeatedly declined to arrest him even when she called the police after he violated the restraining orders she had obtained.
  • A serial rapist was accused of raping several women. The crimes were characterized by extreme violence and mutilation of the women’s genitals. He fled the state once he learned the local police had identified him as a suspect.
  • A woman alleged that she was gang raped by several men who uttered gender-based epithets such as ”bitch” and ”whore” as they raped her. They apparently were in town visiting a friend. Local law enforcement officials said they could not prosecute them because they lived out of state.
  • A woman was sexually assaulted by another passenger while she was riding on a train from Florida to New York. During the assault, he berated her, told her that she was getting what she deserved for traveling alone as a woman, and that should be at home raising her children. She had no idea which state the train was passing through at the time of the assault. The Florida and New York police apologetically said they could not prosecute as a result.
  • In a brutal gang rape case pending under the Violence Against Women Act civil rights provision, two male students allegedly repeatedly raped a female student. One of the perpetrators latter bragged that he liked to get women drunk and sexually assault them.

Obviously, though, our legal culture is a long ways from interpreting any of these things as hate crimes. Still: the law is in place. As of today, the law is officially on the books and on our side.

Maybe we can do something with it.

22 Responses to “One of these hate crimes is not like the others”

  1. Nessum says:

    This post, Violet, is positively depressing! We’ve come a long way? Sure!

    And doesn’t this:

    “…gender-based hate crimes require at least two previous restraining orders issued to protect two different domestic partners…”

    have an eery similarity to this:

    You need to produce two witnesses to your alleged rape, to prove that you weren’t just cheating on your husband and therefore liable to punishment?

  2. Honora says:

    I, too, actually went back and read the legislation to make sure that women made the cut. While the death of Mr. Byrd was tragic, I do not understand how he became the face of this legislation. His death was covered by the old legislation. Could a woman or disabled victim not be found by the administration, or was this some kind of sign to the AA community that racial hate crimes will remain the ‘gold standard’ of hate crimes.

  3. yttik says:

    The black out on discussing “gender” in this bill is astounding. I’ve also read and reread it because absolutely nobody is discussing gender and after a while you start to think well maybe it’s not really there.

    The intent and spirit of a law is so important as well as society’s attitudes. You can have all the laws on the books you want, but if the will to enforce them and the spirit and intent of the law is not accepted, they are meaningless. I remember when we passed domestic violence laws, we started arresting victims like crazy. Later we had to go back and write in language that specified “primary aggressor” so law enforcement would understand you don’t arrest the victim. It’s still a problem around here, many of our police are willing to justify a male’s violence with all sorts of excuses, women are viewed as being violent when they throw their hands up in self defense or yell.

  4. quixote says:

    I haven’t been following this on this assumption that it’s just more talk. I didn’t even know gender was included. “Gender identity,” yes, I’d heard that was included. “Gender”? No. Blackout, indeed.

    And this line: “came to the conclusion that the inclusion of gender has not overwhelmed the reporting system” … tells you they know just how bad things are, even while they’re ignoring the hell out of them.

  5. Firehand says:

    I have a question: Why hate-crimes laws at all? Someone commits murder, prosecute them for the murder; same for assault and rape and whatever else instead of playing ‘extra-protected species’ games?

    I’m not trolling, I would really like an answer to the question.

    And by the way, “Local law enforcement officials said they could not prosecute them because they lived out of state.”? Bullcrap; just because someone leaves the location a crime was committed doesn’t mean they can’t be prosecuted. Someone’s playing games with garbage like that.

  6. egallantry says:

    nor has it distracted the criminal justice system from vigorous action against traditional hate-based crimes

    Vigorous action,
    As if, gender-based hate crimes,
    she’s a distraction.

  7. gxm17 says:

    Honora said: I, too, actually went back and read the legislation to make sure that women made the cut. While the death of Mr. Byrd was tragic, I do not understand how he became the face of this legislation. His death was covered by the old legislation. Could a woman or disabled victim not be found by the administration, or was this some kind of sign to the AA community that racial hate crimes will remain the ‘gold standard’ of hate crimes.

    I mentioned this on TC a couple of days ago. I don’t mean to sound ungracious but why is it that we women always get our rights on the tailcoats of men. You can’t tell me that they couldn’t find a victim of a hate crime who was a woman. It’s just another way of putting men first. Our rights are secondary and we should be happy with the crumbs that get tossed our way. This and the media silence on the fact that this bill covers gender has me in a really foul mood. Any room in the WC, Violet?

  8. madaha says:

    insane. any crime against women with a sexual element -> an attack on the woman’s sexuality is a gender hate crime. That means ALL rape, sexual assault, etc. and most domestic violence in which it can be proven that the perpetrator is a sexist pig.

    this isn’t fricking rocket science!

  9. quixote says:

    egallantry, indeed, and besides, you’d think even they would realize that hate crimes against women are as traditional as it gets.

    (me too, gxm17. I’m in a foul mood. I came to this that way, though.)

  10. Sameol says:

    I remember reading a story once about how one of Matthew Shepard’s female relatives (or maybe one of his lawyer’s relatives, someone connected to the case anyway), was brutally attacked and left for dead. The writer made the point that whatever the law said, everyone could recognize Shepard’s tragedy as a hate crime, while hers was just life, a minor incident at best.

  11. julia says:

    Last week, a man killed his mother in Brownsville, Oregon. Today, in Eugene, a rapist is pleading ‘temporary insanity’ instead of ‘guilty’. He kidnapped and raped a 10 year old girl. He said he heard voices that told him to do it.

    We still do not condsider crimes against women as crimes against a group of people. We see crimes against women as individual crimes, the perpatrators are ‘menatally ill’ or had a bad childhood.

    I have no faith in this law. The new laws in Argentina are much better, and include anything that de-bases women as human beings, which could mean porn.

    I’m starting to think it’s time for a Women’s Strike, or a national Day Without Women.
    See if they can last 48 hours without our free and cheap labor.

  12. Sameol says:

    “extra protected species”

    More like extra targeted species.

  13. yttik says:

    It’s really difficult to get accurate information about what this bill will actually do. I want to know how the bill will trickle down and impact people’s lives. It won’t increase the number of prosecutions, according to David Stacy of the HRC. It doesn’t allow the Feds to step in and prosecute hate crimes when the State’s refuse to. It doesn’t increase penalties for hate crimes. It does seem to be about lending federal resources to states when they request it. One problem with the Shepard case is that the sheriff and county nearly went bankrupt trying to prosecute the murderers.

    It’s marvelous that we’re covering gender and gender identity at the Fed level, but nearly all hate crimes are charged at the state level, so how is this going to work?

  14. monchichipox says:

    This would be a great starting point for the First Lady to take up violence against women as her cause. I would be her dedicated servant and activist if she would.

  15. Jeff says:

    Hate-crime laws have worried me for a long time also. Isn’t it just codifying situational enforcement and punishment? The underlying law can’t be anything BUT weakened – only a “real crime” in certain circumstances.

    One example, local to this horrific crime. Look at SF’s Sanctuary City status. “There’s nothing wrong with Federal Immigration law, it just doesn’t apply here.”

    Subjective law is the bread and butter of a mob.

  16. Violet says:

    Hate-crime laws have worried me for a long time also. Isn’t it just codifying situational enforcement and punishment?

    No. It’s taking aim at behavior that reinforces social oppression. Per the ADL:

    All Americans have a stake in an effective response to violent bigotry. Hate crimes demand a priority response because of their special emotional and psychological impact on the victim and the victim’s community. The damage done by hate crimes cannot be measured solely in terms of physical injury or dollars and cents. Hate crimes may effectively intimidate other members of the victim’s community, leaving them feeling isolated, vulnerable and unprotected by the law. By making members of minority communities fearful, angry and suspicious of other groups — and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them — these incidents can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.

  17. Jeff says:

    My apologies, I temporarily forgot the focus of this blog. Necessary legislation for these protections is long overdue, and I’m still dumbstruck why gender wasn’t the FIRST item on the hate-crime list, and the media on this tragedy should get a piece of the punishment the on-lookers receive. THAT would be a good law; unconstitutional, but it might rock them on their heels for a bit.

    I was addressing hate-crime laws being a Federal attachment to Local laws and punishment that are already approaching joke status. I think it weakens the base law, endangering everyone. Gender-neutral, but I thought it might have already been opened on this thread.

    Still, Which crime DOESN’T require a “priority response”?

    Either the Law is the Law, and Punishment is Punishment, or it’s meaningless. When that calculus is broken, it PRODUCES the isolation and fragmentation. The “Power” “Structure” becomes neither, any variation from each person’s experience is seen as a threat, and the mobs peel off to start hunting, fast. This is happening wherever Law becomes Opinion, beautiful SF leading the way.

  18. Violet says:

    I was addressing hate-crime laws being a Federal attachment to Local laws and punishment that are already approaching joke status.

    What are you referring to exactly when you say approaching joke status? Do you mean state hate crime prosecutions? Sentencing for same? Or prosecution and sentencing of “normal” crimes?

  19. Jeff says:

    “Normal”. Still can’t get used to that. I guess it is healthy that the word tastes like filth in this context. Like a “normal” plague.

    Take a “smoking gun”, standing-over-the-body murder. Gender-neutral, strangers. Conviction…maybe, to a bargained reduced charge. Sentencing, again bargained for “expediency”, and to help with “closure”. Manslaughter II, 7-15; walking on pavement in 8. The price of a life. F. F,F,F,F!

    The Feds tossing some money to the states to (persuade?/compel?) raising that 8 to 9 strikes me as obscene, may give some brief but fleeting hope to a few, and specifically encourage the twisted trash that thrive on victimizing the weak.

    Them – “What, another year for ALL that extra fun? What are we waiting for?” The part where this port-a-john scum becomes part of the foundation for the jail HAS to be fixed FIRST. Capital punishment, etc., can be debated on a different day, but punishment has to at some level be REAL. If not, they will move from 1 to 2 to 10 in an unimaginably short time. I don’t pretend to understand the mentality of a rabid mob, but this IS how they behave, in a nation where justice is “bargained” and laws are “sure, but not for us”.

    I support laws that will protect and help people. Perceptions of each other and society as a whole, the worth of a person, diversity being our greatest potential strength; this law does nothing but distract from these goals, in my opinion.

  20. Ciccina says:

    Ha – I was worried about gender being left out too, but instead of checking the language myself I just waited for Violet to do it. !

    Here’s a slightly contrary view. I’m glad the media didn’t make a big deal (or any deal) out of the gender provision in this bill.

    Why? I bet we benefited from the stealth factor. If I understand correctly, the domestic violence groups did years of hard work behind the scenes to get the gender language in there, but the communications / media / high profile heavy lifting was done by the gay groups on the gay language because it appeared to be the most controversial element, the potential deal-breaker.

    Once the gender language was in, the onus was on woman-haters to argue against it. An uncomfortable position to take for people who normally dwell under rocks and push for capital punishment for everything from murder to wearing your pants too tight. What pol wants to be seen on tv supporting lighter penalties for rapists?

    Besides – the LAST thing anyone needs is a national reporter’s interpretation of the language- god only knows how many ways they’d screw that up. They’d probably do much more harm than good. Believe me, from 20 years of occupying a ringside seat as reporters persistently misconstrued, misreported, and misinformed the public on dozens of family planning and abortion restriction laws – you don’t want that bunch of nimrods involved in communicating something this important to the public. People do not need the first news they hear about this to come from Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, or The NY Post.

    As others have said, the real fight is in educating prosecutors, judges, police, victim’s advocates, et al so that we see results on a practical level.

  21. fannie says:

    You’re right on the money with this post. I have my doubts as to whether hate crimes statutes actually prevent hate crimes. However, gender should have been added long ago, at least to send a message that crimes can and often are committed against people because of their gender. It is bizarre that both the mainstream media and anti-gay bigots have completely overlooked the fact that the new law includes more than sexual orientation.

  22. Michele Braa-Heidner says:

    Violet wrote:

    “Yes, gender really is on the list; it really is included. If you’re like me, you might feel compelled to check the language of the bill to make sure, since there seems to be a near-blackout in the media on that aspect of the legislation.”

    It’s not surprising to me that there is no mention of the addition of gender to hate crime legislation. Further, it’s not surprising that we women are compelled to check and recheck the language to find that gender is indeed there. It’s just more of the status quo here in the land of “man”. The female gender is invisible and/or doesn’t count separate from “man” in the land of “man”.

    That is why the addition of “gender” isn’t mentioned and/or noticed by the media. The only gender that counts is the male gender and hate crimes against the class of men (not gay men, or minority men or disabled men) — just men, are almost non existent; consequently, the addition of gender to hate crime legislation isn’t important because it isn’t important to the only gender that counts, the male gender!! See how this works?

    I’m starting to question whether I exist at all? I guess that’s the point.