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Legislating Hate

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness, Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Violence Against the Homeless

Hate exists in American society.  Sadly, some individuals act upon hateful urges and cause harm to innocent human beings; harm ranging from minor assault to brutal death.  In an effort to curb hateful violence, Congress and many State governments have enacted statutes that increase punishment for those acts targeted at individuals because of such individual’s status.  The intent of such laws, and the punishments attached, are to send a message to society that our criminal justice system does not tolerate hate.

Unfortunately, the federal government and most States do not categorize homelessness as a protected status from hate.  This means that in most places in America a “homeless hater,” unprovoked, could attack a homeless person sleeping on a bench, and when being tried for the crime, the hater would be punished for the action, but not for the motive of action.  Not punishing a person’s reason for acting sends the message that the act is wrong, but the motive behind the act is acceptable.

On August 9, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, three young men beat and stabbed David Ballenger, 46, to death.  David had no valuable possessions to steal.  David was not involved in drugs, or the associated violence. And David did not verbally or physically entice his attackers. David was simply murdered because he was homeless. In fact, a Seattle newspaper quoted one of the perpetrators boasting that there was “one less bum on the face of the earth.”

The attack began as a verbal barrage, the young men criticizing David for not being able to make a living.  When David walked away, his attackers followed and began beating him.  Resisting, David escaped, but the young men found him, elevated the violence, and stabbed the helpless David Ballenger to death.  This senseless murder is not the only instance of inhumanity toward the homeless in Washington.  In fact, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2009 there were 21 reported incidents of violence directed at homeless individuals, 12 of which resulting in death.

Over a decade after David Ballenger’s brutal murder, on January 10, 2011, Washington State Senator Scott White (D-Seattle) introduced legislation in response to the violence toward the homeless.  White’s legislation seeks to include offenses that were intentionally committed because the defendant perceived the victim to be homeless to the criteria for aggravating circumstances under which an exceptional sentence above the standard range may be imposed.  On March 2, 2011 the Senate passed White’s bill with a vote of 49 – 0. The bill was then sent to the House, and the following month the legislation was passed 92 – 1 (Republican Jason Overstreet was the sole dissenter; Republican members Terry Nealey, Kevin Parker, Jay Rodne, and Charles Ross, abstained from the vote) Finally on April 15, 2011, almost 12 years after the brutal murder of David Ballenger, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed White’s bill into law, making offenses committed because a victim was homeless an aggravating circumstance.

But what does this really mean once we climb past the legal jargon?

Practically, the passage of Washington S.B. 5011 (White’s bill) means that if an offense against a person was intentionally committed because that person was perceived to be homeless (the aggravating circumstance), courts will have the option to impose tougher penalties (the exceptional sentence).  However, before a Judge can make a decision regarding the exceptional sentence, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance exists.  S.B. 5011 did not create the concept of increased punishment for certain acts.  Rather, it added homelessness to an already lengthy list of other aggravating circumstances existing in Washington State criminal law.  This statute does not create homelessness as a protected category from hate, but it is a step in the right direction.

by Shane M. Poole

California Bill Would Help Protect Homeless People from Hate Crimes

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Policy Advocacy

The National Coalition for the Homeless firmly believes in protecting homeless people against hate crimes committed by housed persons simply because of the victim’s real or perceived homelessness. Through legislation, the state of California has been working to pass important legislation in order to advance this effort. Assembly Bill 312, introduced by State Representative Bonnie Lowenthal (D-54), is being considered by the State Legislature, and just two days ago it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would specify that crimes against the homeless rendered because of the person’s real or perceived homeless status would be considered a crime discriminatory in nature so victims would have the ability to sue in civil court for increased reparations. In short, the bill would add homelessness as a characteristic to the Ralph Civil Rights Act, which now protects from hate crimes those targeted for factors such as race, sexual orientation, and political affiliation, but not housing situation.

History

AB 2706, introduced last year by Bonnie Lowenthal, was a very similar law, which last year the California Assembly and Senate passed, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it. He stated, “Poverty unlike race, gender, national origin and disability, is not a suspect classification” (see Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis below). However, under California law, political affiliation was already protected on the same level as race, religion… in the Ralph Civil Rights Act. Political affiliation, like homelessness, tends not to be an inherent characteristic like race or religion, so homelessness should be a protected status as well.

One of the reasons the homeless should have further protection is because of the demonstrated necessity to it. Prior to AB 2706, California in 2001 passed SR 18 which required an examination of hate crimes against the homeless. The results of it, along with our report of “Hate Crimes Against the Homeless,” pointed to many ruthless hate crimes against the homeless. Because of this, along with Democratic Governor Brown in power, it seems more hopeful for the bill to be ratified this year.

Process

In order for the bill to go into effect, it must pass through all of the various levels in the California State Assembly and Senate. The bill has already passed through the Assembly, and two days ago the bill passed, by a 3-2 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee referred the bill back to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it now awaits passage. If this happens, the bill must then pass the Senate floor and Assembly floor in order to go to Governor Brown. Last year, AB 2706 passed the Senate with a 21-13 vote and a 51-26 vote in the Assembly.

Effect

The bill, if passed, would not only help to increase reparations for homeless people who are attacked, but it would also serve as a deterrent to those housed individuals committing the crimes. Though some debate exists over whether violence against the homeless should be put on the same plane as violence against homosexuals or people of a certain race, we believe that crimes against the homeless, committed because they are homeless, deserve to be treated more seriously than crimes without aggravating circumstances.

Take Action

Read the bill and follow its status.

Read the Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis from June 7, 2011.

Contact members of the Senate Appropriations Committee about the bill.

Laura Epstein, Staff

Shefights.net : A sequel to Bum Fights

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Hate Crimes

As of April 1, 2011 two homeless residents, George Grayson and Kyle Shaw of St. Petersburg, Florida are suing J.P Florida Productions, its owner Jeffery Williams as well as six female employees of the production company which is responsible for the videos posted and sold on shefights.net.  A temporary restraining order has been enacted and all eight defendants are each facing four charges including;  violation of the Florida Hate Crimes Act, violation of the Civil Remedies for Criminal Practice, Battery and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

NCH’s own AmeriCorps*Vista volunteer G.W. Rolle who is based in St. Petersburg noticed a large number of homeless men walking around with limps, black eyes and other visible wounds beginning early this year.  After many inquiries he finally was told about a series of “beatdowns” being carried out by women associated with shefights.net.  This company (J.P. Florida Productions) would recruit homeless men to participate in their fights after which they would be paid up to $50.00 for enduring the twelve minutes of non-stop beating by scantly clad women.

Several years ago, NCH mounted a campaign against a similar groups of videos that were released under the name, BumFights.  These videos included homeless men beating each other up and performing dangerous stunts like banging their head through glass windows and going down stairs in a shopping cart. Rufus Hannah, now an NCH Speaker, and others who were compensated with a few dollars or a beer, suffered severe injuries as a result of the videos.  In a 60 Minutes investigation in 2006, a link was made between the BumFights videos, and youth who were “copying” what they saw in the videos, leading to random violence against people who were homeless.

According to the defendant in the shefights.net case, the plaintiffs signed releases before they were beaten.  However, neither Mr. Grayson nor Mr. Shaw ever had any knowledge that videos of the beatings were going to be posted or sold on the internet, in some cases for upwards of $600.  Also the severity of the beatings was way beyond their expectations.  During many of the beating the men were tied up, thus unable to fight back at all.  Both plaintiffs have suffered severe injuries ranging from a dislocated jaw, to severe torso bruising to lacerations caused by whipping.  Not to mention that after several of the beating the plaintiffs were never paid the money that they were promised.

According to an article published in the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday April 12, the defendant, Mr. Williams, was quoted saying that he planned to counter sue claiming that the plaintiffs and their advocates lied and damaged his reputation.  He also said “These men are crack addicts and will say anything for money.”

Legal counsel for Mr. Shaw and Mr. Grayson believe that the reason these men were targeted by shefights.net was because they were homeless and vulnerable. Hence, Section 775.085 Florida Statue also know has as the Hate Crimes Act has been invoked on behalf of the plaintiffs.   A law that the National Coalition for the Homeless had a major hand in helping pass through the state legislature in the spring of 2010.  This is the first time since October 1, 2010 when the act took effect that it has been invoked.  Specifically the suit claims “Defendants chose to solicit, assault, and batter Plaintiffs because they were homeless, and Plaintiffs suffered injuries so severe as to evidence a hatred and contempt for people who are homeless.”

-Allison Sauls, Spring 2011 Intern

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