What is a hate crime? According to Deputy District Attorney Oscar Garcia, who prosecutes the cases, a hate crime has to be “substantially motivated by bias against the victims.”
Garcia was one of the speakers at a Hate Crimes panel presented on March 26 by TJSL’s Muslim Students Association and Middle Eastern Law Students Association. He heads the San Diego Regional Hate Crimes Coalition.
“Hate crimes are typically more violent,” said Garcia. “Many of the attacks are by groups targeting certain types of people they don’t see as human.”
Edgar Hopida, of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who was also a panelist and said “there has been an alarming increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S.” Hopida blames some of this increase on “magnified rhetoric” heard in the media.
The event was held against the backdrop of the death over the weekend of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi Muslim woman in El Cajon, several days after she was beaten and a note was found beside her body reportedly warning her family to “go back to your own country.”
El Cajon Police report they are investigating the incident and have not yet made an official determination that the attack was a hate crime, however based on the threatening note and other factors, they have not ruled out that this may have been a hate crime.
“Let’s let El Cajon Police and the District Attorney’s office do their job to determine whether it was a hate crime,” said Hopida.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Helen Hong, who is the civil rights coordinator for that office, talked about the tools federal prosecutors have to punish hate crimes that come from recent legislation, such as the James Byrd-Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in 2009.
“When we prosecute it is a deterrent to hate crimes," Hong said. “It is meant to send a message. And we must all be vigilant against hate crimes.”
Dannell Scarborough, the Executive Director of the San Diego Human Relations Commission, agreed. “Silence is acceptance,” she said. “We need to send the message that hate crimes are not tolerated here.”
“Hate crimes attack the fabric of society and the rule of law,” said TJSL Professor Kaimi Wenger, who also spoke at the panel, which was covered by several television stations. Professor Wenger himself received hate mail recently after an Op-Ed piece he wrote was published in the San Diego U-T. The Op-Ed called on acceptance of Muslims and people of all religions.
“After the tragic death of the Iraqi woman, the panel discussion was very informative in that it defined what elements must be met for a crime to be charged as a hate crime,” said Nimra Suhail 2L, president of the Muslim Student Association.
“All of the panelists worked together to inform the attendees the process of charging hate crimes; how they're defined, investigated, prosecuted, etc. As Oscar Garcia said, 'Hate crimes are not a crime against a certain individual, but a crime against the group as a whole and should be dealt with accordingly.’”
TJSL student Aisha Zubaida Kakar said, "The main reason I went was In light of the recent tragedy of a local Muslim lady who was beaten to death for wearing a hijjab, I found it critically important to attend the meeting. As a young Muslim wearing a hijjab, I found this information very useful and now I am aware of what to do and who to contact in the event that I feel threatened or apprehensive."
The Hate Crimes panel was the first of a series of events at TJSL for Diversity Week.