Three New Mexico men will become the first in the nation to be charged under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a new law that expands the federal definition of violent hate crimes. The men are accused of shaping a coat hanger into a swastika, placing it on a heated stove and branding the symbol on to the arm of a mentally disabled Navajo man. They also allegedly shaved a swastika on the back of the victim’s head and used markers to scrawl messages and images on his body, including “KKK” “White Power” a pentagram and a graphic image of a penis.
If convicted the men could face 10 years in prison. Those sentences could be extended to life in prison if the government proves that in addition to the horrific acts described above the men kidnapped their victim as part of the crime.
The defendants have pleaded not guilty.
According to federal prosecutors, they were able to bring the case as a hate crime because the 2009 law, enacted by the Obama administration, eliminated a requirement that the victim be engaged in a federally protected activity such as voting or attending school for a hate crime charge to apply.
Unfortunately the case represents an apparent bubbling up of white racism that results in horrific acts of violence. While most of those acts resulted in property crimes (like the burning or defacing of mosques, for example) there is no denying that this country is witnessing a resurgence of violent white rhetoric. Let’s hope federal prosecutors aggressively use this new law to fight back against this resurgence. We may not be able to eradicate white nationalism in its entirety, but with tools like this law, we can certainly make perpetrators think twice before acting in such a horrific fashion.
photo courtesy of malias via Flickr