By Mark Herring
We have all seen how hate can turn deadly with frightening frequency in America – at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, at an African-American church in Charleston, and even in our own backyard in Charlottesville.
Over the past month, I have traveled around the state to hear from different communities, faith leaders and community members about how they have been affected by the rise of hate crimes and hateful rhetoric in Virginia and our country.
I held roundtable discussions in Leesburg, Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, Norfolk and Roanoke because I wanted to hear about their experiences first-hand and discuss with them the ways I could help.
I heard over and over again that Virginians are sensing a troubling rise of hate that is making Virginians feel less safe in their own communities. But I also heard resolve and determination to push back on these dark forces.
During my meetings around the state, faith leaders of all backgrounds spoke of the security concerns they now have at their houses of worship and the different tolls that takes on their congregation. They spoke of the rise in security costs and how other programs have fallen by the wayside. Rabbis detailed the anti-Semitic threats and vandalism that they have dealt with at their synagogues. Religious schools have seen a decrease in attendance because parents are worried they are sending their children to school with a target on their back.
I heard the heartbreaking story of a woman’s elderly Sikh father who was attacked while he was on an evening walk because he was wearing a turban.
I heard time and again that members of religious and ethnic minority communities feel that they must constantly be looking over their shoulder, unsure of who may be following them or intending to harm them.
Many cities and towns across Virginia have experienced hate groups distributing vile white supremacist literature, with the intention of intimidating and striking fear in the communities.
We cannot allow this rise in hate to continue unchallenged.
It is well past time that we acknowledge this real and growing threat posed by hate and white-supremacist violence in our communities.
Hate crimes, violence, and intimidation strike at the very fabric of our communities by making entire groups of Virginians feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, forcing them into the shadows in fear.
That is unacceptable, and I am going to do everything I can to make sure everyone in Virginia feels safe, no matter what they look like, where they come from or how they worship.
For a number of years, I have sensed a rise in the threat of white-supremacist ideology and violence. The peddlers of hate have become bolder and more unapologetic about spreading their twisted ideology while becoming less afraid of the consequences of their actions and words.
According to the Virginia State Police, hate crimes are up 64 percent in Virginia since 2013. In 2017, there were more than 200 reported hate crimes, representing a rise in every tracked category of bias – racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation and disability.
We must make it absolutely clear that white-supremacist and extremist violence will not be tolerated in Virginia.
And we need to do more than just say it. We must take action.
We must give law enforcement the tools they need to identify and preempt acts of violence and threats to the safety of our communities, and we must make it clear to vulnerable communities that they will be protected and cared for because they are important parts of our Virginia family.
That is why I am introducing a package of legislation that will better protect all Virginians. It includes a bill that will update Virginia’s definition of a hate crime to include protections against hate crimes committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Another will allow me to prosecute hate crimes, an authority the attorney general currently lacks.
There is a bill that would further restrict the kind of paramilitary activity by white supremacist militias that was seen in Charlottesville in August 2017, and another to give law enforcement agencies more tools to identify hate groups and white supremacist organizations and allow for intervention before groups can commit planned acts of violence.
Another would authorize communities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event, or an event that would otherwise require a permit, and a final bill will close a loophole and ensure that anyone convicted of a hate crime is barred from possessing a gun.
I have introduced a couple of these bills in the past without success, but my hope is that this year the General Assembly will finally take action and acknowledge that this hate exists in our great state and we must do everything we can to put a stop to it.
Mark Herring is Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia.