Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mr. Merkley

Friends and colleagues, I rise today because of a document that our forefathers signed 233 years ago, the Declaration of Independence.  Specifically, the Declaration stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.  They’re endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  That simple phrase created the bedrock foundation for a nation founded under the equality under the law and freedom from persecution and the pursuit of happiness by our citizens.  The government by and for the governed under the concepts of equality and freedom from persecution.   It is an honor to rise today to advocate for that philosophy.  I rise in strong support of the Leahy amendment which would amend the Department of Defense bill to include the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. 

First, I want to thank and acknowledge Senator Kennedy for his strong decade-long commitment to this legislation.  I extend my appreciation to Senator Leahy for leading this effort in Senator Kennedy’s absence.  It has been more than ten years since Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered simply because of his sexual orientation.  It is long past time that we take action to strengthen the federal government’s ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

There is no room in our societies for these acts of prejudice.  Hate crimes fragment and isolate our communities.  They tear at our collective spirit.  They seek to terrorize our society through brutal violence against targeted individuals.  The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a critical step to protect those who are victimized simply for who they are. 

Now, hate crimes legislation is not a new concept.  In fact, the United States of America has had hate crime laws in place for forty years.  The Hate Crime Act of 1969 was passed shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King.  That assassination motivated congress to action.  That law says – and I quote – “It is illegal to willfully injure, intimidate or interfere with any person or attempt to do so by force or threat of force because of that other person’s race, color, religion or national origin.”  That hate crimes law was passed by our parents’ generation to address the hate crimes so evident through the assassination of Martin Luther King and so many other actions in the 1960’s.

Now it is time for our generation to pass a hate crimes bill that will strengthen the work done by our forefathers 40 years ago and that will address new forms of hate crime that have become far too prevalent in our society.  We need to add provisions to prosecute those violent acts based on gender, gender identity, disability and sexual orientation.  Of the 7,624 single bias incidents reported in 2007, more than 16% resulted from sexual orientation bias, indicating that members of the gay and lesbian community are victimized nearly six times more frequently than an average citizen. 

Just this last spring we experienced a terrible incident in my home state.  In March, two men, Sampson Deal and Kevin Peterson were visiting the Oregon coast during their spring break.  They wandered away from an evening camp fire and ran into a group of four strangers who asked if they were gay and then called them derogatory names.  And then these two men were beaten brutally and left unconscious on the beach.  Now this is in the town of Seaside.  A place I visited many, many times in my life.  A beach I’ve walked on many times in my life.  Seaside Police Chief Bob Gross police said that the Seaside police have had some hate crimes before, mostly threats, but never dealt with anything this serious. 

Now I’m happy to report that Sampson and Kevin lived through this incident, but many do not.  The attack could have been worse.  According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2007 saw the greatest number of anti-LGBT murders in eight years.  Twenty-one gay and transgendered people were murdered in the United States in 2007, more than double the number of 2006.  Currently only 11 states and the District of Columbia include laws including gender identity based crimes.  We must make sure that gender identity is protected characteristic included in this legislation.

But members of the gay community are not the only victims.  We were all shocked last month when Steven Johns, a guard at the Holocaust Museum was shot and killed by a white supremacist.  And recent numbers suggest that hate crimes against individuals in the Hispanic community increased by a staggering 40% between 2003 and 2007.  According to a recent report from the Leadership Conference on the civil rights education fund, in the nearly 20 years since the enactment of the Hate Crimes Statistic Act, the numbers of hate crimes hovered around – House Oversight Committee around 7500 annually.  Nearly one every single hour.  And as if that figure isn’t high enough, it is well known that data collected on hate crimes almost certainly understates the true numbers because victims are often afraid to report the crimes or local authorities do not accurately report the crimes as hate crimes, which means they don’t get reported to the federal government.

Now, what specifically is in this legislation?  It gives the Department of Justice the power to investigate and prosecute bias motivated violence.  It provides the Department of Justice with the ability to aid state and local jurisdictions.  It makes grants available to state and local communities to combat violent crimes.  It authorizes the attorney general to provide technical, forensic, prosecutorial and other assistance to state and local government.  It authorizes grants from the Justice Department of up to $100,000 for state, local and tribal law enforcement officials who have incurred extraordinary expenses in the prosecution or investigation of hate crimes.  It authorizes the Treasury Department and the Justice Department to increase personnel to better prevent and respond to allegations of hate crimes.  And it requires the FBI to expand their statistic gathering so that we can better understand the types and structures of hate crimes in the United States of America.

Now these provisions will strengthen the original facets of the legislation from 1969 and that legislation, as I noted, addressed issues related to race and color and religion or national origin.  All that’s improved, all that’s improved in this piece of legislation.  But in addition we expand this legislation to address the hate crimes that we now see so prevalent in the LGBT community as victims. 

Our constitution laid out a vision.  Now we didn’t have complete equality under that vision in 1776.  Indeed it was a vision far ahead of its time and we’ve gradually worked towards it.  We have extended our law to protect women, to include more folks to vote, to enable people to get rid of the racial boundaries that existed for voting.  And so on and so forth.  We have steadily sought to take strides towards that vision of equality under the law and the ability to pursue happiness without the fear of persecution.  Today I’m advocating that we take another important stride toward that goal our forefathers – that vision our forefathers laid out before us.  Martin Luther King said the long arc of history bends towards justice.  But it doesn’t bend by itself.  It is bent by citizens who say this is wrong and we’re going to do something about it. And this great strengthening of hate crimes legislation here the United States is a huge stride towards equality under the law and freedom from persecution.  I encourage all of my colleagues to join in taking this historic stride forward. 

Thank you, Madam President.