The New York Police Department has urged residents to call 911’s Hate Crimes Unit introduced in November as a first recourse, in the event of an assault or attack, whether they are a victim or bystander: “When a crime is committed, the hate crime statute bumps up the level of the crime,” said Charles Senat, an NYPD officer with the Hate Crimes Unit. “So we use that as one of the deterrents to combat hate crimes.”
Hate speech involving actionable threats also falls under the crime umbrella, explained Senat.
In the post-election climate, a semantic fine line distinguishes discrimination from hate crime, both of which are motivated by bias against the victim’s gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, veteran status or other like signifier.
“Many of us are victims of hate crimes and don’t even know it,” said Kirsten Foy, former political strategist and northeast regional director of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
“We don’t know that we don’t have to be subjected to being called the ‘N’ word or going to our desk and seeing a disrespectful symbol etched into the desk or photocopied and left on our chairs.” When Foy asked if anyone in the room had fallen victim to a hate crime, around five hands shot up.
Five weeks after the election, hate crime reports have surged nationally by 113 percent, but that number omits non-violent microaggressions like street harassment, cyber trolling, and slurs against Muslim women who don the hijab. Where crime is not implicated, advocacy groups and government agencies step in where the NYPD leaves off.
A victim of employment or housing discrimination, for example, would approach the New York City Commission on Human Rights to speak to an attorney. “We’re a resource for anybody in the five boroughs who’s felt that they’ve been a victim of discrimination,” said Hamilton Lee, NYC Commissioner on Human Rights. Those who are wary of implicating police can dial 311 instead and speak with an intake attorney at the City Commission of Human Rights. Senator Jesse Hamilton’s office also has a Civil Rights Task Force with a dedicated hotline where people can report hate crimes.
The attorney general’s office serves to escalate these cases to the legislative level should they find patterns of discrimination affecting substantial numbers of people in violation of local, federal and state law.
“We don’t represent individuals but we encourage individuals to let us know [about hate crimes],” said Diane Lucas, assistant to attorney general Eric Schneiderman. “Sometimes you think it’s only impacting you but if it’s from an employer or an agency or just some large entity, it could be affecting other people.”
When moderator Kirsten Foy opened up the floor to Q&A with the general public, several people asked about preventative measures to deter hate crimes without involving the justice system.
Camille-Bettina Atkinson, a Crown Heights resident and children’s theater performer, shared her story of a recent encounter with an inebriated man who lunged at her in a Brooklyn coffee shop that afternoon after making a lascivious comment about ambushing her “in an alleyway.” She swung a plastic ‘Caution, Wet Floor’ sign at him, and his knees buckled, but if not for the handful of self-defense classes she’d taken, she said, the scuffle may have played out differently.
Victims of hate crimes, she said, should not be dragged through the justice system. “I don’t want them standing in front of a judge and being antagonized. That’s the last thing I want. What I want to do is ask them to come over for dinner and treat them like a human being.”
Still others asked about ways to educate people around bias and instigating a zero-tolerance policy for hate crimes.
Etzion Neuer, director for community service and policy at the Anti-Defamation League, said that the civil rights agency conducts anti-bias training in schools by working with educators and students from grades 6-12. The agency trains educators to create safe, equitable school environments and defrost discriminatory tensions when they do occur, while students are taught to confront their own entrenched stereotypes and take action against prejudice and bigotry in their schools and communities.
“We can’t control what happens in homes or what [children] are hearing, what jokes their parents are making or how they clutch their children’s hand when they’re passing people who look a certain way,” Neuer said. “But it is is so critical to try to change hearts and minds and often jail and the justice system doesn’t work for that.”