Coalition aims to halt hate crimes
By Bruce Robinson
“The whole idea is prevention, to bring people together before there’s a problem.” Maddy Hirsch-field, a highly visible lesbian activist and candidate for supervisor, is talking about the pending creation of a county Hate Crimes Coalition, a panel of citizens, law enforcement and court officials, and those who may at times be targets of discrimination, verbal abuse, or worse.
As chair of the Issues and Review Committee of the county’s Commission on Human Rights, Hirschfield helped sponsor a series of public forums on hate crimes in cities from Healdsburg to Guerneville to Petaluma. At each session, people were invited to recount their own experiences and impressions, and did so with sometimes painful candor.
At the last of the forums, held Feb. 15 in Petaluma, an 85-year-old Russian Jew recounted the indignities he had experienced through 74 years of life in the south county city. And it continues to this day, he told the small crowd at the Lucchesi Community Center. “I go to the senior center and I see these people, and many–not all, mind you–but a lot of them laugh; it’s nothing but jokes about niggers and Jews,” he says.
In the SRO gathering in Guerneville that began the forums last June, a wide cross-section of the community turned out, alarmed by the beating of a gay man as he exited a local bar a few weeks before.
“The whole community out here was upset over a rash of harassment and hate crimes,” says Bob Young, the Guerneville realtor who chairs the Human Rights panel and suggested the hate crimes activities.
Citing another incident in which a group of young male “rednecks” used highway cones to label the area outside a local resort as a “Homo-Free Zone,” Young adds that “it wasn’t just gay people reacting to this. It upsets the business community.”
But in most places, the problems are far less overt. Japanese Americans requested a forum in Sebastopol, but none came forward to discuss the subject. And if they are not discussed in informal forums, local human rights advocates say, it is easy to imagine how few incidents are actually reported to authorities.
In the first year that county officials tracked hate crimes in Sonoma County, from June 1994 to May 1995, slightly more than one per month was reported, according to Lt. Ernie Ballinger of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. While state law calls for additional penalties in hate crime cases, “there has to be proof that the crime was motivated by hate against that person’s minority status. That’s hard to prove,” Hirschfield notes. “It’s almost as if the burden of proof is on the victim.”
That’s one reason that hate crimes tend to be widely underreported. Others include fear of retribution, and language barriers, especially among minorities. But another factor is often overlooked. “There’s a lot of shame involved,” Hirschfield explains. “You’re being attacked for one of the things you most innately are.”
The creation of the preventative coalition–which would report to the county Human Rights Commission–is seen as a means of countering some of those anxieties, as it can serve as a liaison between law enforcement officials and groups who feel targeted.
“The forming of a coalition will really support groups that are realizing they have to have more of an active role in the community around discrimination issues,” says Lorene Irizary, director of the county Office of Commissions.
The series of forums–attended by Deputy District Attorney David Dunn and representatives from the Sheriff’s Department, as well as local police chiefs–were “a revelation” to those unaware of the extent to which discrimination exists in the county, according to Irizary.
“The key to success for the planned coalition,” she adds, is “getting the right people in place. You want the people who can impact changes to be part of it, and you want the community to come forward.”
Once the coalition is active, it is assumed that the statistics will show a jump in hate crimes, owing to increased reporting, but Irizary anticipates another, quieter but more important result, too. “You want to create some change in the system, some empowering of communities to not feel so isolated around their differences and being targeted about their difference,” she says.
“One of the things that builds a sense of community is being able to problem-solve together.
“I see it impacting not just hate crimes, but discrimination issues. Hate crimes are the tip of the iceberg, the most violent end of the spectrum of discrimination.”
From the Feb. 28-Mar. 6, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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