You would think that in a progressive state like California there wouldn’t be three different Governors (two Republicans and one Democrat) who have vetoed homeless hate crimes legislation. But such is the case. Disproving that the third try is a charm, on August 5, 2011 Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed AB 312.
Introduced by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), AB 312 would have granted homeless people the right to invoke hate crimes protection when suing an assailant in civil court. Current categories include: race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, political opinion and position in a labor dispute.
It was supported by state trial lawyers, veterans’ organizations, county sheriffs and the state’s rank and file police officers.
In an interview with EverythingLongBeach.com, Assemblywoman Lowenthal said, “Homeless people have enough problems without becoming the targets of violence. This bill is the state’s way of saying those kinds of attacks are especially reprehensible.”
In his veto message, Gov. Brown said, “This bill would expand the provisions of the Ralph Civil Rights Act to include homelessness or the perception that one is homeless, thereby creating new private and enforcement remedies. It is undeniable that homeless people are vulnerable to victimization, but California already has very strong civil and criminal laws that provide sufficient protection.”
But according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, “California for years has consistently ranked first or second in bias homicides against the homeless. Moreover, they are often attacked serially with increasing severity. Yet, current legislation completely excludes the homeless as a group from even the basic civil remedies extended to many other groups to stave off these horrible attacks. For anyone to say that the status quo is acceptable strains credulity.”
He should redirect his letter to the family of Kelly Thomas, 37, a schizophrenic homeless man in Fullerton, who died after a July 5th, 2011 interaction with police. The brutal beating of Thomas has sparked an international outcry along with rallies, officer’s suspensions, calls for the resignation of the police chief, and pending investigations by local and federal authorities.
Last year Brown’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill -AB 2706- also introduced by Assemblywoman Lowenthal.
In his veto letter dated September 29, 2010 to Members of the California Assembly, Gov. Schwarzenegger wrote: “While this bill is well-intentioned, it is unclear whether the homeless are targeted for violence because they are homeless, or because they possess a characteristic already protected by California’s hate crime statute, such as mental or physical disability. Furthermore, poverty, unlike race, gender, national origin and disability, is not a suspect classification. Because of the incongruence between the recognized classifications listed in the Civil Code section 51.7 and homelessness, this bill could result in legal challenges and increased court costs.”
The former Governor must have forgotten the October 9, 2009 incident in which John Robert McGraham, 55, a homeless man, was drenched in gasoline and set on fire on the side of the road in Los Angeles. He died. According to a police officer, the perpetrator, John Martin, had a “straight-up personal dislike and little bit of crazy” toward homeless people.
In both legislative sessions the bills passed overwhelmingly, but along partisan lines. Democrats generally in favor; Republicans opposed.
Other homeless hate crimes legislation has been stalled, getting tied up into California’s prison overcrowding issue. In 1994, then Republican Governor Pete Wilson vetoed an even stronger bill that would have simply added homelessness to the state’s existing hate crimes law.
However, there is clearly a need for anti-hate legislation in California. Since 1999, the National Coalition for the Homeless has issued an annual report on hate crimes and violence against the homeless population.
Between 1999 to 2009, there were a total of 213 hate crimes/violent incidents against the homeless occurring in 48 California cities. Forty-eight resulted in death. California had the most incidents of any state during this eleven year period. Florida came in second with 177 attacks.
Preliminary numbers from NCH’s annual (2010) report on hate crimes/violence against the homeless population has California taking second place only to Florida. But California still ranks number one for the twelve year period from 1999 to 2010.
But even with three strikes against homeless hate crimes bills, we’re not out yet. Looking forward, the fight in California is far from over. Lowenthal hopes that as states around the country pass similar laws, such as Florida, people will see more the importance of hate crimes legislation that protects people experiencing homelessness. She also expresses her continued resolve, stating, “This legislation has now been vetoed by two successive governors. That is disappointing and frustrating, but I’ve been working on homelessness issues for a long time and making progress is never easy.”
By Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing, National Coalition for the Homeless.