By Carol Tannenhauser
If ever an action defined the term “hate crime,” it was that of a white man from Baltimore who came to New York City last week with the sole intention of killing black men. He stabbed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to death with a sword in Chelsea, before turning himself in.
He chose our city because of the media attention he thought he would garner, so let’s give him none. Instead, let’s honor Timothy Caughman, the innocent victim of hatred, as elected officials and Upper West Siders did last Thursday night, at a community forum on hate crimes, hosted by Manhattan District attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. and City Council Member Mark Levine. Caughman was a 66-year-old former antipoverty worker who lived in Queens and liked to discuss philosophy and religion, according to the Times.
The hate crime forum, held at the West Side High School at 140 West 102nd Street, was meant to raise awareness and educate, in response to the increase in hateful harassment and intimidation in the city and country since the 2016 presidential election. Among the questions addressed at the forum was when do these incidents cross the line to crime?
At the forum, Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Jeanne Olivo presented the following scenarios, asking the audience to determine which one(s) would qualify as hate crimes under the law:
#1 A woman is walking down the street, wearing a hijab. A stranger walks up to her, calls her a terrorist, and tells her to go back to her country.
# 2 The same woman is walking down the street wearing a hijab. The same stranger walks up to her, calls her a terrorist, tells her to go back to her country, punches her in the face, and causes physical injury.
# 3 The same woman, wearing a hijab, is driving in her car and finds a parking space. The same stranger, finds the same spot at the same time, gets out of the car, pulls the woman out of her car, they have a terrible argument about the parking space, the stranger punches her in the face, calls her a terrorist, tells her to go back to her country, and causes physical injury.”
The answer is only #2, and here’s why, according to DA Vance. As far as #1, “Words alone, without criminal conduct, do not constitute a hate crime,” he said. Regarding #3: “What you’re looking for, essentially, is factual proof that the crime was motivated by bias, as opposed to bias being expressed incidentally in the commission of the crime.” #3 is still a crime, just not a hate crime.
The designation of hate crime can have profound implications on the seriousness of an offense and the punishment. In the case of the Chelsea murder, said Vance, “the evidence is clearly suggestive that this was a hate crime and that’s why the charge was elevated from ‘Murder 2’ to ‘Murder 2 as a Hate Crime.’ What that means is that, instead of a mandatory minimum of 15 years, the mandatory minimum is 20 years.”
Here is the legal definition of a hate crime, according to the New York State Hate Crimes Act of 2000:
“…a person commits a hate crime when he or she commits a specified offense and intentionally selects the victim, or intentionally commits the act, in whole or in substantial part, because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability, or sexual orientation, regardless of whether that belief or perception is correct.”
Questions were raised: Is bullying a hate crime? Is job discrimination? Is graffiti? ADA Olivo said, “You have to look at the totality of the factors and evaluate if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Also, in order to be designated a hate crime, the underlying crime must be on a list of “specified offenses,” including murder, grand larceny, assault, and others. “Graffiti making” is not on the list, so it cannot be a hate crime. However, Criminal Mischief in the 4th Degree, a Class A misdemeanor (intentionally damaging the property of another person), is listed under that section, and so can be used in certain circumstances.
The etching of swastikas into the wooden doors of the Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York, on Cental Park West at 76th Street, for example, is being investigated as a hate crime. “The culprit has not been caught unfortunately, although we know that these things can take time,” Rev. Schuyler Vogel,” wrote the WSR, on Saturday.
At the forum, all were encouraged to use the DA’s hotline to report potential hate crimes and to access social services and referrals available for hate-crime victims. The number is 212-335-3100.
The evening ended with a stem-winder by a surprise and heartily welcomed latecomer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, straight from City Hall. “We have to be aware of this,” she said, amid shouts of “Go, Gale!” and cheers. “We have to fight it. And we have to understand why the hell these people are so filled with hate.”
Photos by Carol Tannenhauser.