CREEK, Wis. — LAST week, the Department of Justice indicted Dylann
Roof, the suspect in the shooting deaths of nine people in
Charleston, S.C., for hate crimes. Officials said they were bringing
this indictment because they were worried that the racial motivation
in the case would not be addressed adequately by a trial in a state
reason for this concern is that South Carolina is one of five states
(the others are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and Wyoming) that,
according to the Anti-Defamation League, have no laws enhancing
penalties for bias-motivated crimes. The national profile of the
massacre in Charleston has stirred this action, but as a rule federal
hate crime prosecutions are rare.
federal hate crime legislation passed in 2009, the government has
obtained only 29 convictions. Compare this with New York, where
in 2013 alone (the most recent year for which data is available),
state prosecutors reported 149 hate crime convictions.
hate crimes at the local level allows states to better document,
analyze and prevent hate crimes in their jurisdiction. The
A.D.L. cites studies demonstrating that “victims are more
likely to report a hate crime if they know a special reporting system
is in place.”
logic is simple. If I see a crime, I am more likely to call my
neighborhood police department than try to contact an F.B.I. field
most Americans, I rarely interact with federal law enforcement. If I
fear my Sikh community is under threat, I look to state and local
agencies for protection.
is not a hypothetical situation. Three years ago next month, a white
supremacist walked into the Oak Creek gurdwara, a Sikh temple, and
fatally shot my mother, Paramjit Kaur Saini, and five other
18 and just about to start college. My mother never got to see me
her death, I determined to make sure that her status as a victim of a
hate crime would not go unrecorded. I had no experience in public
speaking — at school, I had hardly ever raised my hand — but six
weeks after the Oak Creek massacre, I summoned all my courage and
went totestify before a Senate hearing on hate crimes and
domestic violent extremism.
my home state has a hate crime law, the federal government, I
discovered from investigators in the aftermath of the Oak Creek
shootings, did not record hate crimes against the Sikh community. At
the hearing, I argued that my mother should have the dignity of her
death recorded accurately for what it was.
months later, in 2013, the F.B.I. agreed to change its
policy, and it now tracks hate crimes against Sikhs, as well as
Hindus and Arabs, as it does for other communities that can be
targets of bias-motivated violence.
Michael Page, the neo-Nazi who killed my mother, died at the scene of
his crime by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after being hit by
police gunfire outside the gurdwara. Because of the massacre’s
notoriety — the attorney general at the time, Eric H. Holder Jr.,
described the killings as “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a
hate crime” — a federal prosecution might have followed if Mr.
Page had survived to stand trial.
without that intervention, though, he would have faced the more
severe penalties attached to hate crime charges in a Wisconsin court.
That matters because state hate crime laws represent the local public
commitment to protecting communities that may be targeted for their
race, religion or ethnicity.
the June 17 shootings in Charleston, at least eight predominantly
African-American churches in the South have burned down —
incidents that demand hate crime investigations. Many suspect that
these fires were set deliberately in attacks designed to terrorize
the African-American community.
a hate crime law, however, South Carolina would probably file only
arson charges against any culprits. In addition, there is a clear
reluctance on the part of law enforcement and local authorities to
label these church burnings suspected hate crimes.
by the Southern Poverty Law Center has found that South
Carolina alone is home to six neo-Confederate groups, four white
nationalist organizations, two factions of the Ku Klux Klan and three
neo-Nazi groups. It is only a matter of time before a deranged
individual or group influenced by their creed of hate strikes again.
G. Gilliard, who is the state representative for the district where
the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stands, is a
co-sponsor of a hate crimes bill introduced in the last session of
the South Carolina Legislature. He has vowed to redouble efforts
to pass the law.
is an opportunity for South Carolina to lead, and the other four
states to follow, in enacting laws that could help to deter another
tragedy like the ones in Oak Creek and Charleston. An act of hate
should always be counted and we must have laws in every state to
protect Americans from these heinous acts of violence.
can’t bring back the loved ones, like my mother, whom we have lost
to hate. But we can demand laws to better protect us.