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George on Georgia – Hate crimes bill gives police more power than citizens

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George on Georgia – Hate crimes bill gives police more power than citizens

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George Chidi


I’m going to confess something to you now. I’ve never actually been a fan of hate crimes legislation.

Oh, I accept the logic of creating an aggravating condition to an existing offense in the name of addressing a serious social problem — violence that drives inequality. But I have long been skeptical of laws that might lead to Orwellian thoughtcrime, where one’s belief alone is enough to merit punishment.

If we weren’t regularly looking at videos of Black men being lynched, I might feel more strongly about this. We are where we are because the technology of connection is becoming as powerful as the racism we endure. But I think the path that led to passage of Georgia’s hate crimes legislation yesterday says much about how liberals and conservatives look at this through different lenses.

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It speaks to how things may proceed as lawmakers try to unravel the rest of the problems with Georgia’s system of policing. Despite years of criminal justice reforms, Georgia still proportionately has more people under some form of state control – incarcerated, on probation or parole – than any other, by a long shot. About one out of 20 Georgians is in jail, on probation or parole. Georgia’s correctional control rate is nearly twice as high as the nearest competitor.

Will Georgia do away with qualified immunity – the legal doctrine that makes it impossible to sue a police department for violating the law most of the time? How about creating a database of police officer misconduct, which will allow departments to avoid hiring known bad cops … and defense attorneys access to background on arresting officers? How about not gutting the entire budget for defense attorneys in appellate court, as is called for in the budget right now? Will Georgia repeal the citizens’ arrest laws that initially helped shield the killers of Ahmaud Arbery from prosecution?

Hate crimes legislation has been on the legislative table in Georgia since the late ’90s, fueled in part by the murder of Matthew Shepard. A hate crime bill offered by State Sen. Vincent Fort passed in 2000. Basically it increased penalties for crimes of violence done when motivated by bias, without specifying what kind of bias. The Georgia Supreme Court struck it down four years later as unconstitutionally vague.

It was vague because that’s what he could get passed. Protecting people specifically from crimes motivated by racism, or gender identity, or religious views couldn’t win a majority, because conservative white lawmakers did not want to subject straight white men, alone, to a legal threat.

Never mind that this isn’t how the law works. If a group of Black people beat up a white guy because they wanted to hurt a white person, they would be subject to additional punishment, same as a Klan lynching. But that’s not how it would be perceived by conservatives. Same law, different lens. And so, legislation languished for 15 years. Georgia’s hate crimes legislation only started to see daylight again in 2015, after the racist murderer Dylann Roof slaughtered Black people in a Charleston church.

Even so, it took the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia to move the needle all the way.

And yet, consider all the ways Republicans attempted to derail this before it moved to passage. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan proposed an entirely new hate crimes bill – despite having one in hand – that would have likely been found unconstitutional. Duncan’s bill created a separate criminal category for hate crimes, which is exactly the thoughtcrime problem I worry about. It attempted to carve out protected categories for “culture,” “exercise of religious beliefs” and “exercising rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” which would be considered overbroad. It was designed to die in court. When this became obvious, it was withdrawn.

State Rep. Vernon Jones – who is Vernon Jonesing again – suggested that it should be extra-illegal to attack Republicans, as though a MAGA hat is equivalent to skin color. Because that’s where conservatives are now

The Georgia Senate passed hate crimes legislation only after extracting a toll – legislation to support police officers and first responders. In its initial form, HB 838 would have established state laws that would have made it far more difficult for a local sheriff or police chief to fire a bad cop. It set things up so that a cop could not be fired unless witnesses were interrogated before questioning the officer. Never mind the body camera – someone would have to present themselves to an internal affairs officer for a commander to fire a cop. This language was scrapped, but the bill itself still passed.

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The police legislation creates enhanced criminal penalties for hurting a first responder or destroying their equipment. It also gives a police officer a right to make a civil claim when someone abridges an officer’s civil rights “arising out of the officer’s performance of official duties, or for filing a complaint against the officer which the person knew was false when it was filed.” The legal bar for an actual claim there is going to be sky high, and it looks aimed at ending the paper terrorism of sovereign citizens, but you can see how this law might also be abused by a department that wants to block people from making complaints of abuse of force.

The provision allowing police officers to sue over civil rights violations puts police officers at an advantage. A citizen can’t sue police officer for the same thing because of qualified immunity.

The “compromise” that led to hate crimes legislation being tied to pro-police legislation sets up a moral dynamic with police on one side and people of color on the other, as two groups that somehow have to be balanced in the amount of legislative assistance given to them. Republicans cannot be seen helping Black people without somehow strengthening cops in return. Otherwise it’s not “fair.”

But what does this say about how Republicans view policing? A law that is antiracist cannot be passed without horse-trading for support for police. How is it that this is what is necessary to trade for? How is this anything other than a confession that Republicans view police as an institution supporting racism?

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate.

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