In response to the increase in hate crimes across the state, Democratic legislators filed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in both the N.C. Senate and House of Representatives.
The mirrored bills would expand the definition of a hate crime and increase the scope and scale of punishments for hate crimes.
“In North Carolina — and across the country — responding to hate crimes needs to be a priority because they impact all of us,” N.C. Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (D–Mecklenburg), a primary sponsor of the Senate bill, said. “They have an impact on where they don’t just significantly impact or harm one individual, but they terrorize an entire community.”
The class of protected people would expand to include race, ethnicity, color, religion, nationality, country of origin, gender, gender identity, gender expression, disability and sexual orientation.
“Whether you live in a rural county or an urban county, I think at the end of the day what the hate crimes legislation signals to communities is that each and every one of us will have some kind of protection no matter how you look, how you love or how you pray,” N.C. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D–Wake), a sponsor for the senate bill, said.
The history of the bill
This is not the first time Chaudhuri has introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to the senate. He first filed the bill in 2018 in response to the 2017 death of a South Asian American engineer in Olathe, Kansas, and then filed it again in 2019.
No version of the bill has made it to a hearing on the Senate floor yet, though.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Acts introduced in this session of the Senate and House both add a section on restorative justice. N.C. Rep. Verla Insko (D–Orange), was a primary sponsor of the bill in the House.
“We aren’t born racist, our culture trains us,” Insko said. “So, the goal would be not just to punish somebody who commits a hate crime, but to cure them of it.”
The victim of the offense can request a restorative justice session for the guilty party that will be paid for by the defendant.
Insko said that Kalkidan Miller, a student at Guilford College, is part of the reason she got involved with the legislation. Miller worked with Insko and the other bill drafters on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Miller spoke at a March 31 press conference on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. She said that she was a victim of a hate crime in July 2020 when a white man verbally and physically assaulted her at a Black Lives Matter vigil.
“Even before that — me as a Black woman — I am always cautious of being attacked or being seen as a threat,” Miller said. “And when it occurs, it is one of the most terrifying, traumatizing experiences.”
Pursuing hate crime charges
The act would require law enforcement to report hate crimes to the State Bureau of Investigation who would collect, analyze and disseminate information on the offenses.
Right now, there are no state mandates requiring law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes.
“It’s grossly underreported,” Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said. “Our tools to enforce them (hate crimes) are limited, and the tools that we do have are very, very weak.”
Currently, North Carolina does have an ethnic intimidation charge that states it’s a Class 1 misdemeanor to assault someone, damage their property or threaten them on the basis of race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin.
“It’s pretty weak,” Blue said, adding that it’s difficult for a crime to meet the elements needed for this charge.
The introduced Hate Crimes Prevention Acts would also require law enforcement training on how to identify and respond to a hate crime.
Blue said that this act would have impacted his department’s investigation of the 2015 murders of three Muslim students.
Six years ago, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were shot and killed in their own home. In its investigation, Chapel Hill Police said the crime was motivated by a parking dispute.
Without a state statute in place, the department was unable to pursue any charges related to hate crimes or Islamophobia.
“Our ability to pursue a state hate crime charge, I believe, would have brought some reassurance and comfort to the families of Barakat and the Abu-Salhas, no question about that,” Blue said.
Durham County commissioner Nida Allam spoke on behalf of the families at the March 31 press conference.
“Communities are hurting,” Allam said. “Communities are living in fear, and that’s not okay. It’s past time for North Carolina to pass hate crimes prevention legislation.”
Impact on Asian American community
This version of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act comes after the March 16 Atlanta-area shootings that shook the Asian American community. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, attacks on Asian Americans have been on the rise.
“State legislators should understand that hate crimes do not happen in silos,” Ricky Leung, senior director of programs for North Carolina Asian Americans Together, said in an email.
In the Chapel Hill community, Blue said that the Chapel Hill Police Department had no reports of anti-Asian harassment or intimidation since the start of the pandemic — but, he believes that’s untrue.
“I don’t think for a minute that some of those things haven’t happened in our community this past year, I just said they haven’t been reported to us,” Blue said. “And, because we don’t have a hate crimes statute in North Carolina, they’re oftentimes not recorded as a hate crime.”
For now, legislators are hoping to get more support behind the act so that it can get out of committee unlike it’s previous failed versions.
“There’s been a lot more attention and focus on conversations around the bill," Chaudhuri said. "So I remain somewhat optimistic that the bill may get a hearing."
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