Hate Crimes, From the Killing of Matthew Shepard to the Sikh Temple Tragedy, Dissected in Human Rights Discussion


Arvind Singh. (Photo: Catharine Skipp/Miami Law)

Arvind Singh. (Photo: Catharine Skipp/Miami Law) 

For all those who wear turbans or veils, the world was a different place after Sept. 11, 2001. They endured racism and bigotry, just like countless others throughout history who were denied their rights, singled out for punishment, or discriminated against simply because of the color of their skin or their gender, religion or sexual preference.

The 9/11 attacks "changed our world overnight," Arvind Singh, J.D. '01, a community organizer and member of the Sikh Gurdwara Temple, said during a panel discussion at Miami Law about hate crimes. "Before that, people would perceive me with interest. After that, everyone perceived me with fear. I could see it in their eyes."

Singh spoke on a panel titled "Modern Hate Crimes: Sikh Temple Tragedy and Beyond," hosted by the International Law Society and the Student Organization for Human Rights. Law Professor Kunal Parker, a Dean's Distinguished Scholar, moderated the dialogue, which also featured Breezye Telfair, Assistant State Attorney and Director of the Hate Crimes Unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office; and two other Miami Law professors, David Abraham and Stephen J. Schnably, the latter a faculty advisor to the International Law Society.

On 9/11 and in the ensuing days, "a few interesting things happened," Singh said. "The first man was arrested going home from work. On the train ride, he was arrested because he wore a turban. A woman said, 'One of them is getting away!' It was all over the media, a man in a turban in handcuffs being led away by the police. The first surgeon on scene happened to be a Sikh. There was so much ash you couldn't tell if someone was black or white, or Asian; they were just trying to fix people up from burns and injuries. He took pictures of the scene and when he went to pick them up at the neighborhood Walgreens, he was chased down the block by a mob. The first guy shot was a gas station owner in Arizona. A guy came up to him and said, 'Where are you from?' and he said, 'My background is Indian.' The man says, 'This is for my country,' and shot him dead. When they caught him they said, 'Why did you do it?' and he said, 'I'm a patriot.'"

Telfair told the gathering that the cases of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was gay, and James Byrd, Jr., an African-American killed that same year by three white supremacists in Texas, sealed her interest in prosecuting hate crimes. As a veteran prosecutor, she jumped at the chance to form a hate-crimes unit in the State Attorney's Office.

The discussion focused on differences between hate crime and hate speech, the difficulties inherent in certain prosecutions and the lack of adequate legislation, as well as on an examination of international treaties concerning hate crime.

"When it comes to hate speech, rather than hate crimes, the ground is a lot less firm," Professor Abraham said. "The U.S. is at the individualist and libertarian extreme. We let Nazis march in Jewish neighborhoods, Klansmen burn crosses, and talk radio go bonkers. Responding to their own historical experiences, other countries see speech as a contribution to democracy, and by that measure there is no room for insulting, degrading, and excluding people, or groups of people, whether by speech or by action."

Professor Schnably expanded on that premise. "International human rights law requires states to protect their citizens from bias-motivated violence, but for the most part doesn't specify how," he said. "As in the U.S., many other countries impose enhanced punishment for bias-motivated violence to person or property. A number of countries also prohibit hate speech directed at protected groups; how they do so varies widely. International human rights law permits restrictions on hate speech that would be impermissible under the First Amendment, and some treaties – such as the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Racial Discrimination – arguably require states to ban hate speech."

Despite being held while students are studying for exams, the panel on hate crimes was a "tremendous success," said Albert Medina, the President of the International Law Society. He added that the participants successfully covered many facets of hate crimes and other related issues in both a domestic and international context. "Especially in light of the tragic Sikh Temple shooting of 2012, this particular legal topic is one that the Miami Law community definitely needed to be constructively exposed to, and today, that is exactly what we accomplished with flying colors," Medina said.

Logan Haine-Roberts, President of the Student Organization for Human Rights, said the panelists "stressed the need for improving basic statistics gathering, developing hate-crime education for the community and police officers, and better defining hate crimes so they can be effectively prosecuted." Haine-Roberts said that, after the event, members and friends of the Student Organization for Human Rights expressed great interest in the topic and in giving advocates and scholars an opportunity to address Miami Law students at similar events in the future.

To conclude, Singh offered a quote from Mark Twain as a key to raising tolerance: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."

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