The Pennsylvania Legislative Agenda and Hate Crimes

Today's Post-Gazette features a strong statement from State Senator Jim Ferlo on plans to expand Pennsylvania's Hate Crimes law to include additional protected classes, including ancestry, disability, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.  These were part of a 2002 amendment which was recently overturned on procedural grounds. 

A hate crime makes certain crimes more serious when their motivation is based on .. well, hate toward a class of people. In Pennsylvania, those crimes include harassment, assault, murder, trespass, criminal mischief and arson.

If you burn down someone's house because they are Latino or Jewish, there is an understanding that the violence is much deeper than the arson itself. 

Hate crimes,” Mr. Ferlo said, “can often be far more violent than typical crimes and attempt to dehumanize victims. By grading these offenses more strictly, I hope we can further discourage crimes based on hate as we continue to grow into a more open and accepting society.”

Being targeted because you fit into a certain class of people sucks, period.  It sucks whether it is being the target of verbal taunts or assault.  Anyone who has been on the receiving end of said motivated attacks can attest to what I'm saying.

There has been opposition to expanding the protected classes because of the inclusion of the LGBTQ community as a protected class.  I guess some folks think its okay to kill a woman because she is a lesbian, but not because she is Jewish.  Hmmm.  OK, I'm exaggerating for the sake of my argument because there really are some people who fail to see that the underlying motivation of a crime can increase their impact on society.  Any murder is an assault on the entire community.  A murder motivated by group hate sends an especially chilling message to that particular strata in the community, but please don't forget that it has an impact on all of us. 

Let's be clear.  The wing-nuts in Pennsylvania don't want to acknowledge the LGBTQ community in any way, shape or form. They want unfettered access to pray away the gay even when their freedom to express their religious beliefs interferes with my freedom to, well, exist.  Hence, their cries of foul over the 2002 legislation drag out every possible tired excuse about impinging on their religious and speech freedoms. They have been working overtime to spread misleading messages about this legislation, including claims that it will create “thought” crimes.  The mislogic goes that hate is a thought, not an action.  Punishing someone for a thought is unconstitutional. 

Well, that's bullshit.  The violence perpetrated under Jim Crow could not be reduced to the loss of the individual life of the man hanging from the tree.  Lynching was an intentional act, intentional in the sense of sending a very clear message to others in that class of people about the societal expectations of the dominant culture.  The psychological damage was deliberative and reverberated far beyond the lives of the family members who lost their loved one. 

That's hate.  Pure, unadulterated hate.  It doesn't make it any less so when other groups that are outside of the dominant culture are targeted simply for the “crime” of existing.  Expanding the law to include more groups goes a long way to countering that message, reminding the entire community that we are all valued and should not be singled out based on some characteristic.  The claim that the current law is good enough is patently untrue for we already factor in motivation when measuring charges … the law recognizes that murder committed by accident is different than a deliberately planned out murder, even if both actions result in the loss of life.   

Still, I am very conscious that there is an important distinction between expressing your opinions a la Diane Gramley in a lawful manner and deliberately harassing people.  This is a distinction that we count upon our law enforcement officers and the courts to uphold.  Frankly, I have some expectation that Ms. Gramley will uphold that distinction, too.  I despise her message and her tactics.  I do believe that she is culpable for sowing the seeds of intolerance toward gay people that leads to acts of hatred … see thoughts do lead to actions …yet, I am still willing to acknowledge her right to devote her entire life to her twisted little mission.  Just don't infringe on my rights.  She sends her minions into Allegheny County to stir up opposition to gay rights.  That's not a crime. And it is an action we can resist, fighting fire with fire so to speak, by rallying our own troops.

Members of our LGBTQ community are the targets of hate crimes here in Pennsylvania.  They are beaten up because they are gay – it happens in high schools every single day.  They are harassed in public.  They are accosted when trying to participate in a lawful activity such as festival or celebration.  These things happen and kudos to Senator Ferlo for putting this legislation on the front burner instead of behind the scenes as an attachment to some other bill.  A message against hate requires a public airing, not a furtive nod.

So what can you do?  Well, for starters, you can “join the impact” by attending the rally on January 10 and the County Council hearing on January 15.  We have strength in numbers.  Make no mistake, my friends and allies, if we turn out many hundred folks for both events, our state elected officials will take note even though it is a County issue.  Your attendance at both events will give Senator Ferlo, Representative Frankel and their allies the statistics they need to persuade their colleagues to vote in favor of the hate crimes legislation. 

The more often you come out, the bigger the difference you can make.

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