Failing to Act Early

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) was introduced in Congress in 1998, broadening interpretation of hate crimes and providing more power to federal officials to investigate and prosecute cases in which violence occurs as a result of bigotry.

The legislation, passed in the Senate in April 2000, has support from state and local government and law enforcement bodies and a broad range of national civil liberties organizations including the NAACP and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, and individual supporters like the parents of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual student who died after being severely beaten and left tied to a fence post on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming.

Although laws offer the hope of curbing hate crime, the fact remains that law enforcement can only act after a crime has been committed.

Civil rights and religious groups across the country agree that more effective citizen action is needed to stop hate crimes before they happen. There are almost always people who were aware of hate-motivated incidents or circumstances that were preludes to violence. Too often, however, those who might prevent a tragedy choose not to get involved.

Matthew Shepard’s brutal beating death was a case in point. “Wyoming has always reflected the epitome of the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude,” said a friend of Shepard. “This horrible murder has shattered our ability to hide behind that type of stance.”

In contrast, a number of groups have chosen to tackle head-on preludes to hate-instigated violence.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights contacts media outlets which air or publish material slanderous to Catholics, issues news releases to condemn bigoted portrayals of Catholics, formally responds to educators or employers perceived to deny rights to Catholics in school or at work, and takes legal action where considered necessary. “When the religious freedom rights of any American are threatened,” states the League on its website, “the Catholic League stands ready to fight for justice in the courts.”

The Jewish Anti-Defamation League, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other religion-based and civil rights groups conduct similar activities and provide information, guidance and tips on websites and in publications designed to counter hate and to prevent it from proliferating into violence.