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Defying state leaders, Charleston may soon punish hate crimes on its own

'Long Overdue'

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Charleston could soon become the first city in South Carolina to pass a hate crime law, getting ahead of a stalled statewide effort amid growing concerns over violence aimed at particular groups.

On Tues. Nov. 13, Charleston City Council gave first reading to an ordinance banning intimidation on the basis of "perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability or national origin."

The ordinance, which was eclipsed by a lengthy debate about a proposed plastic bag ban, was unanimously advanced with support from city staff and elected officials.

Colleen Condon, the president of the Charleston-based Alliance for Full Acceptance, was the only member of the public who spoke in its favor.

One in five

"It is interesting to note that the state does not have a hate crime statute," said Councilman Peter Shahid while introducing the one-page ordinance.

In fact, South Carolina is one of five states in the country that have no laws on the books addressing hate crimes. Of the 45 states that do, 15 of them do not address sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

"The federal government has a hate crime ordinance, and if we had a situation that met this definition of criminal behavior, we would have to rely on the federal government to prosecute that case," Shahid said.

That's exactly what happened five days after the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel, which took the life of nine parishioners at the historically black church in downtown Charleston. Attorney General Loretta Lynch charged avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof with 24 counts of civil rights violations, half of them under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is named after two hate crime victims and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Mayor John Tecklenburg said that, while the federal law is fit for "terrible atrocities" like Mother Emanuel and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, something has to be done for everyday acts of targeted violence.

"If someone is harassing someone because of their sexual orientation or because of their race, and gets in an altercation and it's clear it was about discrimination and hate, we won't tolerate or accept hate even at those levels," he said at Tuesday's meeting.

Councilman Bill Moody, who represents parts of West Ashley and James Island, says he'll vote for the ordinance when it comes back for third and final reading, especially if it helps the police keep offenders off the street.

One of the more conservative members of Council, he's worried that the ordinance is largely symbolic.

"If you’re just passing — whether it’s this, or plastic bans, or bump stocks, or apologizing for slavery — all that kind of stuff, it doesn’t really do anything, in my opinion. It’s kind of pandering and being political," he said in a phone call with the City Paper.

"Long overdue"

Dott Scott, president of Charleston's NAACP - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Dott Scott, president of Charleston's NAACP

Local advocacy organizations applaud the city's efforts to address the issue of hate crimes, though none appear to have been consulted before the ordinance was proposed last week.

"I think it's necessary because of the uptick of incidents of hate crimes," said Dot Scott, president of Charleston's NAACP, in an interview with CP before reading the proposal. "Citywide, statewide, I think it's long overdue."

Chase Glenn, executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, was made aware of the ordinance after a request for comment from CP.

"It sends a message that Charleston is leading the way in a state that desperately needs a hate crime law," Glenn said in a statement. "Without a South Carolina law that protects against hate crimes, the city is in essence standing in the gap and penalizing people who are found guilty of hate-based crime."

Glenn, AFFA - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Glenn, AFFA

City lawyer Steve Ruemelin, who wrote the ordinance, said it would enhance the punishment for an underlying crime if an offender were found guilty of both in a court of law. Any "hate intimidation" offense would be subject to the maximum penalty the city can enforce: a $500 fine, 30 days in jail, or both.

Both Scott and Glenn agree that the punishment for crimes based on a person's identity should exceed that maximum.

State Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg and John King of York tried to pass harsher penalties in 2016 when they sponsored a bill in the state House that would have made it a felony to commit an offense with the intent to "assault, intimidate, or threaten a person because of his race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin, or sexual orientation." Those found guilty would be subject to a fine ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, a prison sentence ranging from two to 15 years, or both.

It went nowhere.

City lawyer Steve Ruemelin - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • City lawyer Steve Ruemelin

"There was a real strong sentiment that it was unnecessary," Cobb-Hunter said. "That you already have laws on the books that address crimes of violence."

Gov. Henry McMaster, for one, shared that sentiment when asked about enacting protections for LGBTQ folk in a phone call with CP before Election Day.

"I'm not in favor of new regulations and laws," he said. "I think they're already protected under current law. Everyone is protected under current law."

Cobb-Hunter says she will pre-file the bill for the upcoming session once again.

"[Charleston] City Council taking that action, to me, suggests avenues that are available to local government when you're dealing with dysfunction on state and federal levels as far as legislations that the majority of people want to see," she said.

Recent events

According to the FBI, hate crimes rose by 17 percent across the country in 2017, though that includes data from close to 900 new law enforcement agencies compared to 2016.

The numbers show an uptick for the third year in a row. Most notably, anti-Semitic hate crimes saw a 37 percent increase.

Last month's Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the country, loomed over discussions of Charleston's ordinance.

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds - FILE
  • File
  • Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds

The tragedy was referenced by Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds, who recently penned an op-ed in the Post & Courier after returning from a 10-day trip to Israel with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

"We need to condemn anti-semitism, bigotry, and hate wherever it occurs," Reynolds told Council.

This year has also been difficult for the state's transgender community.

On April 1, Sasha Wall, a Chesterfield County trans woman of color, was found slumped over her steering wheel in the middle of a rural highway after being shot multiple times at close range in her neck and shoulder. She was the eighth trans woman known to have been murdered this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

To make matters worse, the county sheriff called her a "crossdresser" when discussing her case with the media.

On Aug. 19, Kendra Martinez, a 34-year-old trans woman of color from Goose Creek, was found lying face-down on the ground and bleeding from her head outside of a downtown Charleston nightclub.

A Charleston Police Department spokesperson took the unusual step of specifying early on that her assault did not happen because Martinez is "a transgender." A follow-up investigation revealed that her attacker had, in fact, confronted her about her gender identity prior to the assault.

In the days following, police and local LGBTQ organizations, including AFFA, held a joint town hall where Chief Reynolds announced that officers would undergo sensitivity training sessions to improve relations with the city's LGBTQ community.

That same day, a 30-year-old man was charged with second-degree assault and battery and booked into county jail.

Jeff Ayers, the executive director of SC Equality, says Charleston's efforts could encourage state leaders to take action.

"What that's gonna do is send a clear message to the legislators that it's time to step up and do something they should've done years ago," he said. "It's just disgraceful that an attack like [Martinez's] could not be categorized as a hate crime in the state of South Carolina."

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