Illinois Issues: Officials Wage War Against Hate

Jun 1, 2017

The General Assembly passes legislation aimed at strengthening hate crime laws after a post-presidental-campaign spike in bias incidents.

Not long after midnight on February 3, a man smashed the glass entrance of the Chicago Loop Synagogue and placed two swastika stickers on its door. Surveillance cameras caught the incident. Three days later, Stuart A. Wright, a Chicago man, now 32, was arrested and charged with a hate crime and felony damage to property. Wright, a CPA who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, pleaded not guilty. The next court date is later this month. The case has yet to go to trial.

That same week the synagogue was vandalized, residents of several south suburban and central Illinois communities discovered Ku Klux Klan recruitment fliers. Some were loose, some turned up on porches and others were in bundles at the end of driveways. And in early February, someone carved a swastika into a bench in a youth exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

That event was one of dozens of instances of hate incidents in Illinois  tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the wake of the November presidential election. The spike in incidents was so great for the first few months after the election, says the SPLC’s outreach director Lecia Brooks, the organization starting tracking them along with continuing to keep tabs on the hate groups operating in the nation. The organization found 1,372 bias incidents between the election and February 7. In Illinois, the group came up with a tally of 56 incidents between the election and the end of March.

“Post-election, it really seemed to echo the rhetoric that began during the campaign—if you recall, that it started with the anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican rhetoric, with the whole build-the-wall (argument) that was the initial thing that Trump came up with when he launched his campaign. And then he moved to the Muslim ban, so it wasn’t surprising at all that we saw that the primary motivation for the majority of the bias incidents that happened across the country, the number one motivation was anti-immigrant animus,” says Brooks, who notes that in recent weeks the pace of the incidents has dwindled.

The instances of hate crimes and bias-related incidents caught the attention of officials and lawmakers in Illinois. Gov. Bruce Rauner and Attorney General Lisa Madigan each pushed a separate piece of hate crime legislation. Both sailed through the General Assembly.

Rauner in March announced a multi-pronged response that included increased police training, and Madigan conducted a hate crime summit in February at which representatives of several religious and ethnic groups reported having experienced that spike in hate incidents. 

Gov. Bruce Rauner in March announced a series of steps to combat a rise in hate crime and anti-Semitism.
Credit Office of Gov. Bruce Rauner

The attorney general told Illinois Issues, “There are more people that unfortunately feel more comfortable in committing hate crimes and hate speech. And so again, we have to make sure, as law enforcement, as society — we are responsive to the fact that hate crimes are something that is not just an attack on an individual, but it is an attack that is motivated with the goal of attacking a religion, somebody’s race, somebody’s way of life. And it is intended to have a broader impact as opposed to just harming an individual; it needs to harm a community. And this is why hate crimes laws were passed in the first place. But unfortunately, we’re seeing the circumstances in the United States right now, where we need to be more proactive and engaged and responsive as law enforcement to make sure that this doesn’t continue.”

The instances of hate crimes and bias incidents are wide-ranging. Take for example:

Four youth were charged with a hate crime in January after they live streamed their attack on a mentally disabled man. During the incident, they shouted racial epithets and obscenities about white people and the president-elect.
Credit Chicago Police Department

Four attackers in Chicago in January streamed on Facebook Live a multi-hour attack of a disabled teen they had kidnapped. They tied him up, beat and cut him and forced him to drink water from a toilet. While this occurred, they shouted racial slurs and obscenities about white people and the soon-to-be inaugurated Donald Trump. 

But as the Daily Southtown newspaper reported after analyzing Chicago Public Department data, hate crimes against Jews, Muslims, Arabs and Hispanics hit five-year highs in 2016.

Since the election, attackers defaced a copy of the Qur'an at a suburban library, forced removal of Muslim women’s head scarves and put up racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic posters on college campuses.

Attorney General advocated for a bill that would classify cyberstalking as a hate crime.
Credit Office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan

Out of those concerns, Madigan orchestrated the forging of House Bill 3711, which would add cyberstalking, stalking and intimidation to the offenses considered to be a hate crime.

“There is a significant increase in the use of technology, as anybody who spends any amount of time on the internet, on social media, can tell you. So, we made sure to include cyberstalking, and certain acts of intimidation that deal with increased use of technology to commit hate crimes,” says Madigan.

The bill also gives her office authority to file civil complaints, and it allows “judges to impose a civil penalty of up to $25,000.  "I would hope it would serve as a significant deterrent from committing these crimes in the first place.”

Among the opponents to the bill was Rep. John Cavaletto, a Salem Republican, who says he is opposed to the concept of an act specifically being singled out as a hate crime and elevated to its own status.

Lonnie Nasatir, director of the Chicago/Upper Midwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League, strongly disagrees.

“All crimes obviously are bad. If somebody gets beaten up in a battery that is a bad situation.  But it’s even more nefarious when someone is actually beaten up because of a protected category or an inherent characteristic of that particular victim whether it be ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc. because it’s really coming from a place of pure hate.”

Rauner’s representatives did not respond when asked whether he was expected to sign this measure.

In March, the governor gave a speech at the Illinois Holocaust Museum to announce a series of initiatives such as the development of a statewide, standardized training plan for local and state police. The program will be operated by the Illinois State Police and Anti-Defamation League and the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Board. Rauner also called for expanding anti-hate crime education in schools through a dedicated portal. 

In the statement in March, Rauner also said he would order Department of Human Rights Director Janice Glenn to make a department policy to “ensure any complaints filed with DHR that rise to the level of a hate crime are referred to local law enforcement for potential criminal prosecution.” 

Some have complained that Rauner appears to be giving particular attention to anti-Semitic hate crime, while putting less focus on other types.

Hoda Katebi, communications coordinator for the Chicago branch of the Council on American- Islamic Relations, says, “It’s difficult to see a governor only talking about one sort of hate crime and not talking about, for example, the increase of killings of black people in the hands of police. Or the deportations, ICE (U.S. Immigration and [Customs] ) raids and things like that — or also violence against Muslims. So, it’s not just the fact that Muslims are excluded from a topic of the governor’s conversation, but also everyone else who’s been suffering through a lot of forms of state violence or state oppression and go unnoticed all the time.” 

A Rauner spokeswoman wrote in an email: “The Governor's directives have and continue to address all forms of hate and intolerance.  According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Illinois — like the nation — has seen a spike in anti-Semitic activity.  We witnessed the vandalism at Chicago's Loop Synagogue, a bomb threat targeting Chicago Jewish Day School and a window shot out at a synagogue in neighboring Indiana.  We must act against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate and bigotry.”

Nasatir says his sense is that “the governor, while he is concerned about anti-Semitism, he’s much more global and concerned about overall spike in hate crimes. I’ve spoken to his office several times. That’s why we’re working closely with Illinois state police and other law enforcement entities within the state system, to … go over their hate crime trainings and make sure it’s robust and that they’re really doing the best they can in terms of training their staff on what constitutes a hate crime and what doesn’t.  And most important, the impact that these crimes have on all different types of communities and the importance of making sure that the law enforcement community understands this particular crime is different than your average crime and they must be there for communities.

In addition to the hate crime platform the governor introduced in March, he is supporting legislation that would strengthen hate crime law. Rauner says he will sign House Bill 2390, which was sponsored by Oswego Democratic Rep. Stephanie Kifowit. Kifowit says the idea for the legislation was brought to her by Sadia Covert, a representative of the Islamic Center of Naperville. 

Covert, a Naperville attorney, says, “We noticed that although Illinois has a good hate crime law, I felt like that language could have been improved and tightened up a little bit more so it would be easier for police officers and other law enforcement officials and prosecutors to understand … I have received feedback from them, regarding the hate crime statute as it stands right now, that it’s not very clear, it’s a little vague — so it can be confusing.”

Madigan says she supports the bill. “I think both of these bills are a move that needed to be made, unfortunately because of the circumstances that we find ourselves in in this country."

The bill gives courts the discretion to determine if fines should be higher than the $1,000 set in current law, she says. “It would also allow for a court to assess actual damages and punitive damages — instead of just one or the other.”

Covert notes the bill also requires people who commit hate crimes to get training. “The thing about hate is that people are not born hateful. It is something that is developed over time, and it derives out of ignorance or a lack of knowledge.”

Sadia Covert helped write a piece of legislation that would strengthen hate crime law in Illinois.
Credit Sadia Covert

Along with legislative support, Madigan has asked Rauner to restore the state’s Hate Crime Commission, which was created by executive order in 1999, but has not been filled in a decade.

Rauner’s spokeswoman did not reply when asked whether he supported Madigan’s call.

“I know that there have not been appointments made for many years, but the intent behind it was a good one. It was really a state mechanism to contend with hate crimes and to do prevention work through both education and training. And so, again, this is a time when that is of most importance. So, it would be my hope that the governor would in fact appoint people to that commission and make sure that we’re using a very — it’s kind of a very easy mechanism, but a very important one to bring all of the advocates, all of the interested parties around the state together, who are already doing some of this work, certainly have the expertise, certainly have the desire to do it — to the table to make sure that we have the right resources, and the best resources directed to this problem.”

According to the Windy City Times, the city’s LGBT newspaper, Chicago Ald. Pat Dowell, chair of the Committee on Human Relations, and colleagues introduced a resolution last week to urge Rauner to restore the hate crime commission.

LGBT people have long been targets of hate and violence, says Mike Ziri, policy director of Equality Illinois, an advocacy group. “I want to say that violence has been a present condition in the lives of many LGBTQ people for years now. We know that in 2015, one-fifth of the hate crimes reported to the FBI were because of the victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity — 20 percent of all the hate crimes in 2015 reported. And we know from CPD that there was a 20 percent increase in hate crimes between 2015 and 2016, and we know that the majority of hate crimes in Chicago between 2012 and 2015 were attacks on black and gay men. So, there’s now a lot of focus since the election on hate crimes across the country, as there should be, but the violence in LGBTQ people’s lives has been a very present condition for as long as we’ve been coming out and being ourselves.”

Tiara Richmond of Chicago was one of four black transgender women killed in the United States in one February week.
Credit Facebook

As of mid-May, 11 transgender people had been murdered in the United States in 2016, including a 24-year-old black Chicago woman, Tiara Richmond (AKA Keke Collier), according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Nine of them were women of color and seven of them were black. There were 25 transgender people reported murdered last year, according to the center.

Ziri says,  “Sometimes folks fear and hate what they don’t understand and who they don’t know.”

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.