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Is it a hate crime? 

Look closely at the definition of hate crimes and decide for yourself whether the cross burning in Arroyo Grande qualifies as such an act

The Santa Maria/Lompoc Branch of the NAACP is deeply disturbed by the recent cross burning at the home of a teenage African American girl and her family in Arroyo Grande. While review of this incident as a hate crime is ongoing, we have concluded that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck. As African Americans, this incident reminds us of our history during which cross burning at the homes of people of color was the work of the Ku Klux Klan and was often accompanied by lynchings, beatings, and other cruel intimidation of African Americans.

Though some individuals may consider this recent cross burning a prank, we are not amused. There is no doubt the perpetrators knew well the significance of their action when they planted and ignited the 11-foot-tall cross in the family’s yard. How could this blazing symbol of hate possibly be considered the work of pranksters?

Take a close look at the definition of hate crimes and decide for yourself whether the Arroyo Grande incident should be called exactly that. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, which monitors hate crimes across the country, “Hate crime is the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability. The purveyors of hate use explosives, arson, weapons, vandalism, physical violence, and verbal threats of violence to instill fear in their victims, leaving them vulnerable to more attacks and feeling alienated, helpless, suspicious and fearful.”

According to U.S., state laws throughout the nation define a hate crime as an act involving threats, harassment, or physical harm, which is motivated by prejudice against someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.  The underlying criminal offenses that are designated in hate-crime laws include, but are not limited to, harassment, terroristic threats, assault, and such actions against property as trespass, criminal mischief, and arson.

The California Association of Human Relations Organizations declares the terms “hate violence” and “hate crimes” first appeared in the Final Report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Racial, Ethnic, Religious and Minority Violence issued in April, 1986. It defined hate violence to be: “Any act of intimidation, harassment, physical force or threat of physical force directed against any person, or their property or advocate, motivated either in whole or in part by hostility to their real or perceived race, ethnic background, religious belief, sex, age, disability, or sexual orientation, with the intention of causing fear or intimidation, or to deter the free exercise or enjoyment of any rights or privileges secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United State of California whether or not performed under color of law.” When hate violence is punishable under a criminal statute it is a hate crime.

California Penal Code, Sect. 422.6 says in part: “No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall by force or threat of force, willfully injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress, or threaten any other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him or her by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Further, no person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall knowingly deface, damage, or destroy the real or personal property of any other person for the purpose of intimidation.”

So, what does the Lompoc/Santa Maria Branch of the NAACP conclude? Well, the teenage youngster was African American, and was peacefully sleeping in her mother’s home when she heard a loud bang outside her window, then arose and saw a blazing 11-foot-tall cross. The culprits preceded this racist act by stealing the cross from a nearby church. The young girl and her mother certainly were emotionally hurt and intimidated. The perpetrators used arson (destroying the church cross) and vandalism on the family property to instill fear into this African American home. These cross burners took part in crimes against property defined as criminal trespass and criminal mischief. We maintain that this act caused extreme fear and intimidation. Under California law, this was a willful criminal act that involved defacing and destroying the real property of another. It appears obvious the Arroyo Grande incident can be defined as a hate crime. The NAACP hopes our law enforcement authorities can solve the crime, and that our judicial system will issue a just penalty. 

The NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, founded in 1909, and has 51 branches in California. Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt is president of the Santa Maria/Lompoc branch. Send comments via the opinion editor at [email protected].

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