Now is the time to pass the Georgia Hate Crimes ActState Rep. Calvin Smyre (left) played a pivotal role in getting the Martin Luther King Jr. statue to be placed on the Capitol grounds – shown here at the unveiling in August 2017. Now Smyre is urging the Georgia Senate to pass a hate crimes bill (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
By Maria Saporta
We must make sure Ahmaud Arbery did not die in vain.
We have an opportunity to turn the horrendous shooting of Arbery into something good – having Georgia pass the Georgia Hate Crimes Act when the legislature reconvenes in June.
Fortunately, the February shooting of Arbery in Brunswick was caught on a video that recently became public. That led to the May 7th arrest of a white father and son – Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis, 34 – by Glynn County police who charged them with murder and aggravated assault.
Arbery, a black man who would have turned 26 on May 8, was out jogging when he was shot.
The McMichaels, however, were not charged with a hate crime motivated by bias.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds on Friday reminded people at a news conference that “there’s no hate crime in Georgia.”
How we wish there were no hate crimes in Georgia. What we don’t have is a mechanism to prosecute hate crimes– a way for statewide authorities to be able to pursue additional charges and greater penalties.
Georgia is one of only four states in the country without hate crime legislation. The other three states are Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming.
But we have an opportunity to remedy that unfortunate fact.
A bi-partisan coalition of state legislators have been hard at work trying to pass the Georgia Hate Crimes Act.
State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a white Republican from Dacula, is among the leading lawmakers who have crafted and sponsored House Bill 426. The bill would apply extra penalties on crimes committed out of prejudice or bias, based on race, color, religion or sexual orientation.
“For two years, I have been working to pass a hate crimes law in Georgia,” said Rep. Efstration in a statement. “Speaker David Ralston made this bipartisan bill a priority in the Georgia House of Representatives last year, and I am calling on the State Senate to pass House Bill 426 as soon as possible.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), one of the most influential legislators in Georgia, issued a statement last Friday to urge the final passage of HB 426 – the Georgia Hate Crimes Act.
“In light of what has transpired in Brunswick and the horrific video showing of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, House Bill 426 will be a top priority for me when we return for the conclusion of the 2020 legislative session,” Smyre, a black Democrat, said in a statement.
“While we will demand and expect fairness and integrity going forward in the judicial process that follows, what happened to Ahmaud Arbery has become too much of a norm in today’s society; these circumstances have to be corrected and stopped, for we know that more crimes of hate will follow,” he continued.
Smyre is the dean of the House of Representatives – having first been elected in 1974.
“It is time for Georgia to get out of the dark ages as one of four states without a hate crimes act,” Smyre said. “As a bipartisan co-sponsor of HB 426, I say, ‘now is the time for us to act by calling on the State Senate to pass HB 426.’”
The Georgia House passed the bill last year by a 96-64 vote. But the bill failed to gain traction in the state Senate – at least until now.
“We have been trying to get a hate crimes act passed for three years,” Smyre wrote. “House Bill 426 has been carefully crafted not to impose mandatory minimums or reverse the bipartisan progress made in criminal justice reform, but to announce that now is the time for our state to assert with one voice that crimes of violence and prejudice against our neighbors will be classified and condemned for what they are: hate crimes.”
Gov. Brian Kemp, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, apparently is open to a state hate crime bill, though he stopped short of endorsing HB 426.
In a statement, the governor said, “conversations about legislation are already underway, and we will work through the process when the General Assembly reconvenes.”
Georgia used to have a hate crime law. Legislators passed a bill in 2000 – forbidding acts that targeted victims due to bias or prejudice. The law was struck down for being too vague by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004.
That means Georgia, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., has been without a hate crime bill for 16 years. How embarrassing and unfortunate.
We now have a need and an opportunity to remedy this omission. The tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery has provided greater impetus to pass the Georgia Hate Crimes Act.
Doing so would mean Arbery did not die in vain.