For the fourth time this month, a device has exploded in a residential community of Austin, Texas. The first three detonations were from packages left on the front porch of homeowners. In those explosions, a total of two people were killed and two others injured. The latest incident was slightly different and more terrifying; the package was left on the side of the road and may have been triggered by a tripwire. Two bicyclists in their 20s were seriously injured.
The devices were set up to be detonated by motion (i.e., shaking or jostling). They also had some sort of safety switch, which enabled the bomber to move the devices without activating them. The first three explosions detonated in the eastern part of Austin, an area consisting predominantly of black and Hispanic residents. The fourth explosion occurred in the southwestern part of the city, where the two men injured were white. However, police are not ruling out a connection between the four incidents nor that the bombings are hate-related. One thing they do know is that the “packages” are not going through the United States Postal Service.
Reports of hate crimes in Austin rose in 2016, according to an FBI report. However, Brian Levin, Director at the Center of Hate & Extremism, said that 178 is a suspiciously low number for such a big state. “Relative to its population, Texas reports fewer hate crimes than other big states,” said Levin. Even a smaller number results in cases brought to court.
In 2001, Texas enacted the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, named for an East Texas black man who was dragged to his death by three white men in a pickup truck in 1998. Since then, only 26 cases have been presented in court as a hate crime, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration. Why?
Although the law provides stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by race, religion, color, disability, sexual preference, or national origin, it doesn’t allow for perpetrators to be found guilty of a hate crime in conjunction with any other crime committed. Additionally, prosecutors may not want to try to prove hate was the suspect’s motive when it is easier to show simply that the suspect is guilty of the crime committed.
Data released by the FBI on U.S. hate crimes shows that 58 percent of incidents in 2016 were motivated by a victim's race. While civil rights groups agree the number of hate crimes is on the rise, they say the FBI data is flawed. Serious gaps remain at each stage of reporting an alleged hate crime. First, the FBI data is only as complete as the number of incidents reported. Often those most vulnerable to hate crimes are those most marginalized by law enforcement. These experiences makes them feel less safe about coming forward to report a hate crime. Additionally, law enforcement agencies don’t always recognize a crime as a potential hate crime, so the data is not reported to the FBI.
Hate crimes are a national problem and one that needs to be addressed. One thing we often forget is that when people feel emboldened to act out and target minorities, no one is immune. This must stop. Stricter laws enabling perpetrators to be prosecuted for hate crimes is a start, but we must do better. Any hate crime in America is one too many.
My second novel, Betrayal of Justice, is intended to open our eyes and our minds to the hate and prejudices that lurk in our own backyards. If you are passionate about justice or love political and courtroom intrigue with compelling and powerful characters, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Betrayal of Justice, available through most online booksellers.