Bills moving to expand definition of hate crimes

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Capital News Service 

LANSING –  Incidents of hate crimes are increasing in Michigan each year and advocacy groups are looking to change the statistics. 

In 2021, reported hate crimes – defined as crimes motivated by the victims’ identity – in the state increased significantly in Michigan from the year before, from 377 to 430, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Among them, 76.7% directly targeted a specific person based on race and ethnicity, while 19.3% were directed toward property, according to department statistics. 

John Johnson, the executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said the state’s current hate crime laws focus too much on the destruction of property although they account for a minority of incidents. 

Johnson said he views these statutes as “weak”  because they only classify an incident as a hate crime if physical violence or destruction of property is present. 

“The circumstances that we live in today fueled that hate and in a lot of ways,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen backlash toward a number of people in terms of their color and national origin. It continues to be a huge problem in Michigan, and it’s one that we continue to have to address on a regular basis.” 

Other states like California, Illinois and Washington have enacted hate crime laws that enumerate sexual identity and gender clauses in hate crime laws and include intimidation as one of the qualities of a hate crime. The laws also encourage law enforcement training in dealing with hate crime incidents, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit research group in Boulder, Colorado.

Similar legislation has passed the state House and is pending in the state Senate.

The Michigan Hate Crime Act, if passed, would replace the state’s 1988 ethnic intimidation law. The legislation proposed by Rep. Noah Arbit, D-West Bloomfield, includes sex, sexual orientation, age, gender identity and disability as identities that can be attacked by a hate crime. 

The current ethnic intimidation law applies only to religion, race and ethnicity. 

The legislation also would add intimidation as one of the factors of a hate crime. It would expand beyond threats of bodily harm and property damage to include “repeated or continuing harassment of another individual.”

“No one in Michigan should ever be made to feel unsafe because of who they are, or what community they belong to,” Arbit said in a speech on the House floor. “As a proud Jew and gay man, this fight is personal to me. I ran for office to take on rising hate and extremism.” 

A related proposal by Arbit and Rep. Ranjeev Puri, D-Canton Township, would create new legislation on the destruction of property when it is intentionally damaged or threatened due to the identity of the facilities. That would include places of worship, cultural community centers, LGBTQ+ centers and gay bars.

Both packages of bills are moving toward hearings in the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.  They would need to pass out of committee and the full Senate before being sent to the governor for signature. 

Puri cited the rise in vandalism in buildings associated with targeted communities. 

“By expanding the definition of a hate crime to include other marginalized communities, we move Michigan closer to being a place that is safe and more welcoming to all communities,” Puri said.

He added, “I often say the rich cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of Michiganders is what makes our state so great, and these bills help protect our greatest asset in Michigan, our people.” 

Puri said the current law is “woefully outdated and weak” and that, based on the bipartisan support in the House, he is optimistic about getting the legislation to the governor’s desk this year. 

“These bills are all about providing tools to law enforcement and prosecutors to hold people accountable and ensure our communities are protected and safe,” he said. “Who doesn’t want that?”

Sen. Sue Shink, D-Northville, a member of the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, recalled stories she heard about the importance of expanded hate crime laws. 

For example, a friend called her recently about a pride flag being burned on the steps of a Grosse Pointe church. 

And when the Legislature considered amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the Michigan Constitution to protect sexual and gender identity, Shink said she heard stories of how members of the LGBTQ+ community around the state were threatened based on their identity. 

“It’s about the ability of everybody in Michigan to live as who they are, without being harmed for being who they are,” Shink said. “There are some people in our community and in our state who don’t understand that it’s not OK to go after people just for being who they are.” 

Nada Al-Hanooti, the executive director of Emgage Michigan, a nonprofit organization in Florida with an office in Detroit. The group is committed to politically engaging Muslim communities, and A-Hanooti said she has supported the legislation since it was proposed. 

With Islamophobia on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslim religious institutions have been targeted more often, pushing Al-Hanooti to support expanding the law to include intimidation and threats of damage, she said.

Al-Hanooti said the expansion is “not only for the Muslim community but for all Michiganders” to practice, believe or even wear anything without fear.

“When one person is harassed in our community, it affects the entire community and causes fear and anxiety,” Al-Hanooti said. 

Puri said the reason he first ran for office was due to watching a hate crime occur. A “white supremacist” opened fire on his family’s former place of worship “in the name of hate, ignorance and Islamophobia,” killing members of the Oak Creek Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin. 

“It is my personal journey that has brought me to this moment, igniting a passion within me to advocate for change, to protect all of our communities, and to ensure that no one else experiences the pain and suffering that my community knows too well,” Puri said.

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