Thanksgiving Justice (and Redefinitions)

With the midterms over—particularly given the way they’re turning out, better almost every day!—everyone even vaguely progressive is desperate to take a break.

People haven’t been so eager for Thanksgiving since the Europeans stole the new world they were “thankful for” from the people who were already here: in the Americas, a population the equivalent size of the population of Europe. (So much for a “discovered” country.)

Nevertheless, I get it. We all need a breath before heading into the shoe closet that Mueller’s investigators will shortly be dropping.

So I was sorting through papers on my desk—a desk which, post-elections, resembles bombed-out Aleppo—and came across a pile of clips and notes on the many subjects I had to postpone writing about, including a far-too-little noticed aspect of the Trump effect on our country. So I’ll start with that.

Hate crimes.

According to FBI data, hate crimes rose 17 percent last year, the third annual increase in a row, and anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 37 percent. More than half of all such crimes—about three out of every five—targeted a person’s race or ethnicity, while about one out of five targeted their religion, according to the data. White supremacists and other far right extremists have killed more people since September 11, 2001 than any other category of domestic extremists. But under the Trump regime, US counterterrorism strategy has ignored that rising danger.

The term “hate crime” was coined in the 1980s by journalists and policy advocates who were attempting to describe incidents directed at Jews, Asians, and African-Americans, incidents that were traditional criminal offenses like assault, murder, arson, or vandalism, but with an added element of bias. Traditionally, FBI investigations of hate crimes have been limited to crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In addition, investigations were restricted to those wherein the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. States also have their own hate-crime statutes: Washington and Oregon were the first states to pass hate-crime legislation in 1981; today, 45 states have hate-crime statutes (the exceptions are Arkansas, Georgia, whose hate-crime statute was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming). States vary with regard to the groups protected under hate-crime laws (e.g., religion, race or ethnicity, and sexual orientation), the range of crimes covered, and the penalties for offenders.

With the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the FBI was authorized to investigate these crimes with no prohibition. This landmark legislation also expanded the FBI’s role to investigate hate crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or “gender,” e.g. sex.

What I have been unable to find, however, is statistical data on hate crimes targeting sex/gender.

The Women’s Movement, through individual groups and as a whole, for years has been pushing for recognition in practice of violence against women as hate crimes. But this has been acted on only sluggishly. Nor does the United States prosecute “hate speech,” unlike many developed and some developing countries. I don’t want to get into the tall weeds about the First Amendment here, but I can’t help wondering why acts of violence committed against someone because of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity are (properly) considered hate crimes, but the same acts, committed against women for being female, are referred to as “sex crimes,” if labeled at all.

Crimes against women—at home, at work, at-large, and on-line—are almost totally crimes of sexualized violence. But sexual assaults and rape, sexual harassment and threats, stalking, sexualized battery, etc., are not considered “hate crimes.“ Yet most if not all have a clear element of misogyny/woman hating at their root.

For instance, on November 3, a 40-year-old white man posed as a customer at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, before he shot two women to death, injured five others, and killed himself. He had a history of harassing and groping women, and in online videos he spewed misogynistic vitriol, railing against all women because some women had turned him down for sex. Not a hate crime? It was not referred to as such by law enforcement authorities or in press coverage.

In the November mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, that left 12 people dead, the first assumption was that the (white male) shooter suffered from PTSD after his combat in Afghanistan. But then people came forward who had known the gunman from his high school days, and they noted his lifelong history of aggression toward and violence against women. Not a hate crime?

In fact, violence against women has become a constant, consistent red flag in the backgrounds of mass shooters.

If we named such crimes accurately, we would take such red flags seriously. Not only would such crimes be elevated as significant priorities in public awareness and highlighted in law enforcement attention; they would also raise into general consciousness the staggering frequency, epidemic proportions, and commonplace hideous “normality” of such crimes that helps constitute the daily reality in which women live, always on alert.

So the next time you hear the phrase ”sex crime,” or read about a rape and murder as if that was an average crime, listen or read more closely—and call it what it is.

I know: another redefinition, another issue to be put on the long To Do list.

But after we pause for a moment to breathe, to celebrate the new House of Representatives and the Blue Wave of women, and to have a hopefully peaceful Thanksgiving. And after we raise a special toast to the two Native women—Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Kansas and Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico—who will now represent their people, and all of us, in the United States House of Representatives. Thanksgiving justice. At last.

This blog will return on December 3, 2018.