Justice, Peace, and Hate Crime: Looking at Matthew Shepard’s Law

By Michelle Chen Oct 24, 2009

To many civil rights activists, the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the Senate on Thursday was an unequivocal victory. The legislation, now headed to Obama’s desk, would expand federal laws against hate crimes to include those based on sexual orientation (along with gender and disability), allowing for enhanced sentencing that may apply to cases of race-based attacks. Yet the political triumph is dampened by the endemic tragedy of the system served by hate crimes legislation. So what is there to celebrate? The bill is a milestone primarily because of the political moment it signifies: it gives unprecedented recognition to the struggle of LGBT communities for equality. It also serves as a marker of incremental progress in that struggle—a milestone between a heinous murder and the distant aspiration of a day when such special punishments are no longer needed. It also solidifies LGBT activists’ stake in a movement fraught with tensions between queer and racial justice advocates. Setting aside the pride of having pushed the law through Congress, some question the wisdom of investing so much political capital in building a new category of criminal punishment. Gabriel Arana writes at TAPPED:

Hate-crimes legislation is symbolic: It sends the message that anti-gay prejudice is abhorrent. But it does little for gay victims. Stricter sentencing might send a message to bigots, but by then it is probably too late. Even the bill’s proponents concede that it is unlikely to prevent violence against gays and lesbians. If that is really the goal — and it should be — why not prioritize education and activism instead? I don’t think that all crimes are hate crimes and that this is a form of thought-policing like some, but I do question whether the movement should have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours fighting for a bill that kicks in after damage is done when gays and lesbians can still be fired in most states for being gay. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would have a significant and concrete effect on how most gay people live their lives, but it’s taken a backseat to the HRC’s strangely single-minded campaign to get the Matthew Shepard Act passed.

As we’ve noted before, the political momentum behind the legislation may obscure internal debates over the ethics of hate crimes laws. Liliana Segura at Alternet wrote on the dubious efficacy of hate crimes laws. You might spot a thread of hypocrisy in a movement that attempts to combat violence by bolstering a violent system of criminalization. In response to the Senate’s passage of the Mathew Shepard Act, Blackandpink.org laid out some talking points from a coalition of radical rights groups like the Audre Lord Project and Queers for Economic Justice:

Many liberal, and even self-proclaimed progressive, organizations are fighting for “hate crimes” legislation nationally and state-by-state. The Senate just voted in favor of the “Matthew Shepard Bill”. Challenges and critiques are made over and over again by queer/trans/gender non-conforming folks, people of color, low-income/poor folks, and others most impacted by the many tentacles of the prison industrial complex, yet the campaigns continue on…. Plain and simple, hate crimes legislation increases the power and strength of the prison system by detaining more people for longer periods of time.

Proponents of the legislation stress that it doesn’t criminalize people’s thoughts, just their violent actions. But opponents within the movement say the problem of fighting force with force is how easily the relationship between abuser and victim can flip:

This reality of the state makes it so that white people can accuse people of color of anti-white hate crimes, straight people accuse queers, and so on. Such a reality opens the door for marginalized people to be prosecuted for simply defending themselves against oppressive violence. This type of precedent setting also legitimizes ideologies of reverse racism that continuously deny the institutionalization of oppression.

Activists ought to question whether pursuing justice through hate crimes laws will bring the peace that rights activists have sought for so long. At the very least, the Matthew Shepard act helps forge ties between communities unified by crisis and oppression, and affirms common challenges. But it’s tragic that this political milestone is so embedded a system that militates against that shared struggle. Image: The fence where Matthew Shepard died in 1998 (Denver Post)