That was the message at the coalition’s Nov. 15 public forum on hate activities and hate crimes at Union Baptist Church, 1405 East Monroe St. in Springfield. Featuring speakers from the legal and activism realms, the forum drew about 30 listeners, prompting calls for more community involvement in a problem some believe to be growing.
Larry Golden, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield and a representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said CPHDD was formed in the 1990s as a response to several hate-motivated incidents in Springfield, including swastikas spray-painted on Jewish synagogues, recruitment marches by the Ku Klux Klan, beatings of gay people and even the burning of an Islamic mosque.
“There was a whole series of activities going on within the Springfield area that just cried out for some kind of response,” Golden said, recalling also the presence of Matthew Hale, an avowed white supremacist who spread racist propaganda throughout central Illinois and was later sent to prison for trying to have a federal judge murdered.
Springfield’s rate of hate crimes varies from year to year, according to data available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While data from 2010 has not yet been published, data from 1996 to 2009 show a high of 18 hate crimes in both 2001 and 2004, as well as a low of two hate crimes in 1998.
Not all hate-inspired activities are crimes, Golden noted, but all hate expression requires a response.
“Hale’s dropping of hateful literature in driveways probably wasn’t a criminal act,” Golden explained. “So what we needed to do was start a dialogue within the community about bigotry, hatred, tolerance and the need for the community to stand up against it.”
Golden says the coalition is also meant to be a support mechanism for people who are targeted by hate expression.
“People who were suffering the indignity of these acts often had nowhere to turn for support,” he said. “The police would come to us and say, ‘This person was attacked and clearly is reaching out and wanting to talk to someone for support.’ We thought it was important for people to know that if they encountered this type of incident, they would find a group with some individuals who would be willing to stand up and support them.”
Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser used the opportunity to explain Illinois’ hate crimes law, which offers harsher penalties for certain crimes that are motivated by bias against a person or group’s “race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability or national origin.” A misdemeanor assault, for example, becomes a class 4 felony if it can be shown to be motivated by one of those factors.
“If we have hate crimes being committed, it’s not a safe place to live,” Milhiser said. “We all want the same thing: a safer, better place to live.”
Matthew Cannon, supervisory assistant in the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield, explained how the federal statutes on hate crimes complement and often defer to state statutes.
“I hope I never have to prosecute a hate crime, because that means people are doing and acting the way they should be acting,” Cannon said.
Springfield Police chief Robert Williams was scheduled to speak at the forum but could not attend.
Click here for a graph of hate crimes in Springfield.