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Ideas | The Atlantic
Ideas | The Atlantic
Criticizing the Police Shouldn't Be a Hate Crime
Earlier this month, a California college student passing through Utah wanted to show contempt for a sheriff’s deputy who stopped her friend, so she defiled a pro-police sign. The cop watched, then arrested her.Now she has been charged with a hate crime and faces possible jail time under a bipartisan hate-crime law passed in 2019. The law allowed prosecutors to seek harsher punishments for criminal offenses targeting people for any of more than a dozen reasons, such as the victim’s race, religion, gender identity, or—fatefully—status as a police officer. A law previously portrayed as a historic stand against intolerance is now being used to punish speech that state actors dislike.Proponents of hate-crime legislation tend to assume that they will stigmatize or deter attacks on marginalized and vulnerable groups. But not all authorities with the power to enforce these laws share that vision. The Utah case is a stark reminder that laws intended to impede discrimination can be risky. They can enable government agents to subvert core civil-liberties protections by punishing or chilling speech that its armed enforcers dislike.[Read: The people vs. hate ]Lauren Gibson, who is 19, did not plan to engage in any such speech when she and her friends, after a camping trip, headed back to California in a caravan of three vehicles. Along the way, one driver was pulled over for speeding by a Garfield County deputy.Gibson told the Daily Beast that the cop’s attitude toward her friend was too aggressive. Wanting to “stand up for” her friend, Gibson retrieved a pro-police sign that said “Back the Blue,” stomped on it as the deputy watched, and threw it in the trash. She claims her group had found the sign on the side of the road and kept it. The deputy alleged that she had stolen the sign from a local display.“The Back the Blue sign was made here in Panguitch, Utah, and many are found in yards and businesses throughout Garfield County,” Sheriff James D. Perkins said in a statement that went on to argue that his deputy was victimized:Ms. Gibson caused a public disturbance and purposely targeted the officer in a very unpeaceful manner … he was singled out and attacked … because he was a law enforcement officer. We are greatly disturbed by the hatred shown to law enforcement officers for no apparent reason. We are hopeful that this county can mend and heal from the division.Gibson was booked with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. According to the local ABC affiliate, the arresting document stated that she was “smirking in an intimidating manner” and that “due to the demeanor displayed by Gibson in attempts to intimidate law enforcement” while destroying the sign, the charges are subject to a sentencing enhancement—that is, if convicted, she will be subject to a harsher punishment. Garfield County’s account raises obvious questions: While Gibson might have disrespected the sheriff’s deputy unjustly, how feeble must a cop be to feel intimidated by a teenager smirking or stomping on a sign? Does the county really need to “heal” from the incident?Indeed, it’s possible that—unless the sign was stolen—no crime was committed at all. Even if Gibson’s conduct was disorderly under the letter of the law, a prudent cop or prosecutor would de-escalate this case rather than spend taxpayer time and money on criminal charges. The case has all the hallmarks of a needless attempt to punish “contempt of cop.”Two years ago, the Utah hate-crime law won widespread support despite its obvious potential for abuse. “Comprehensive hate crimes legislation is essential to protecting the safety and well-being of all Utahns,” the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan A. Greenblatt argued in a statement prior to its passage. “Hate crimes demand extra attention because of their impact—they not only hurt individual victims, but they also intimidate and isolate whole communities and weaken the bonds of our society.” Around the same time, Utah’s then governor, Republican Gary Herbert, called the law “a message that every person, every individual in our society, is worthy of dignity, respect, and love.” State Senator Derek Kitchen, a Democrat who is Utah’s only openly gay legislator, declared, “This bill comes at such an important time in our community. Everywhere we look we seem to be seeing more hate, more violence, more directed remarks.” The ACLU was a lonely voice of principled opposition. “Our unvarnished view of the criminal justice system,” the ACLU of Utah declared in a 2019 statement, “cautions us against supporting lengthier prison or jail sentences to punish hate crimes.” The statement went on to warn that “the process of pursuing hate crime charges might ultimately damage free speech.”This was prescient. Hate-crime enhancements offer the state unusual opportunities for viewpoint discrimination, because they transform speech that is constitutionally protected, like saying “Fuck the police” or making equivalent gestures, into an act that can effectively lengthen a jail sentence. What would otherwise be protected speech becomes the ostensible evidence that a perpetrator chose a victim out of hatred.[Avlana Eisenberg: Hate-crime laws don’t work as their supporters intended]The threat to speech gets worse as the number of classes grows—as it is likely to do. To oppose ever more inclusive hate-crime laws is to guarantee being accused of tolerating bigotry against whichever groups are left out of the statute. What’s more, some members of excluded groups will feel less valued than included groups. “I don’t think you should be destroying ‘Blue Lives Matter’ signs. That’s dumb and that’s hate-filled and don’t do it,” Utah Governor Spencer Cox said recently. “I think, you know, that racist behavior may be a little worse, but I don’t know why we have to put it on a scale and always weigh those things.”That no one ought to be targeted by criminals on the basis of any characteristic makes such moral calculations unnecessary. If assaults against Jewish people or trans women or Asian Americans sow fear in entire categories of people, isn’t the same true if criminals assault people because they are socialists or police officers?But expanding the breadth and bite of these laws imposes costs too often ignored by well-intended proponents. At Reason magazine, C. J. Ciaramella rounded up other cases of law enforcement using hate-crime enhancements “to punish people for criticizing them.” Including police as a protected class invites overzealous enforcement, simply because officers have so much discretion.The Gibson case does not only show how these laws can go wrong, but also hints at a potential reform that could prevent some excesses. If hate crimes “indeed intimidate and isolate whole communities,” as the ADL argues, then prosecutors seeking to enhance a sentence on the basis of “hate” should have to show that some wider intimidation actually took place.That would be easy enough if someone started burning crosses on lawns, assaulting men leaving a gay bar, or seeking out homes of police officers and scrawling death threats on their front doors. But prosecutors would have trouble persuading a jury that the sheriff’s deputies of rural Utah were intimidated or isolated by a teenage road-tripper stomping on a sign.
To Address the Overdose Crisis, Listen to the People Who Know the Most
Trish Perry organizes weekly outreach for homeless populations in Newark, Ohio. (William Widmer / Redux) On a street corner in Newark, Ohio, every Saturday, rain or shine, Trish Perry distributes harm-reduction supplies—syringes, Neosporin, saline, and the overdose-reversal drug naloxone—to people who use drugs. She also provides food, clothing, tents, and blankets to the more than 75 people who stop by each week. Set up in a grassy lot shaded by a scrawny hackberry and a silver maple, her outreach efforts are funded purely by donations. Sometimes health-care workers will check wounds; sometimes a stylist will offer free haircuts. The people who come here for aid know that Perry isn’t going to ask them for personal information or expect anything in return.Perry’s efforts aren’t supported by the local board of health. In fact, two years ago, it voted unanimously against establishing a syringe-service program. Perry, the mother of a son with substance-use disorder, decided to continue getting lifesaving supplies directly into the hands of the people who need them most.People who use drugs and those who love them have helped reverse thousands of overdoses in the United States, saving friends, family members, and strangers. They’ve done this work without recognition, without fanfare, and sometimes at great risk to themselves. They know firsthand the benefits of access to sterile syringes, naloxone, and drug-testing strips, which measure how much fentanyl might be in a particular drug. But few in power listen to their advice. Some state and local governments actively ignore them. If local governments want to tackle the opioid crisis, they need to listen more to harm-reduction advocates, especially those in hard-hit communities.The CDC estimates that more than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2020, up 29 percent from the year before. And since 1999, more than 840,000 Americans have died from overdoses. In recent years, the overwhelming majority died from using the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is used on its own or found in other drugs, resulting in people taking it unintentionally.[Read: The true cause of the opioid epidemic]Overdose-death rates are especially high in West Virginia and Ohio, where I live. In the years that I’ve reported on this crisis, I’ve seen local-government officials act ineffectively, sometimes in direct contradiction to the recommendations of experts. Even today, with a supportive federal government, I’ve seen pushback against the kinds of harm-reduction efforts that research shows can save lives and prevent disease.Critics argue that syringe-service programs create needle litter and crime, and enable drug use. The evidence, though, does not support these concerns. According to the CDC, “New users of SSPs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t use the programs.” Syringe-service programs, which provide sterile syringes in exchange for used ones, also help reduce transmission of blood-borne infections and other risks of intravenous drug use.Still, in rural Scott County, Indiana, where the biggest U.S. HIV outbreak in recent history occurred in 2015, county commissioners voted to shut down a local syringe-service program. In the past year, lawmakers have also sought to restrict syringe services throughout North Carolina, and last week the city council in Atlantic City, New Jersey, shut down a program. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and local city-council leaders have rolled back syringe programs and signed into law measures that further restrict access to syringes and free health care. West Virginians are already seeing the repercussions. Amid a rise in intravenous drug use, Kanawha County, the home of West Virginia’s capital, Charleston, is experiencing an uptick in HIV cases that the CDC has called the “most concerning in the United States.”These laws complicate the efforts of grassroots harm-reduction advocates and, in some cases, could make their work illegal. Yet with few resources and, typically, no pay, volunteers push on. These advocates believe in meeting people who use where they’re at—both physically and emotionally—and in respecting them as humans. People who use drugs, for example, can face judgment, mistreatment, or even arrest when they seek resources at traditional health-care facilities, which makes them reluctant to go. The harm-reduction community knows that people feel this stigma, so the advocates have learned how to reduce the physical harms, including hepatitis C, HIV, abscesses, and overdoses, that can come with drug use. They see the benefits of incremental improvements—a sterile syringe is better than a used one; a naloxone-reversed overdose is better than death. The advocates I know go out day after day, night after night, meeting people in drug houses, on corners, in their homes, and under bridges. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, the Columbus Kappa Foundation—an alumni organization for members of Kappa Alpha Psi, a Black fraternity—distributes naloxone in churches and barber shops. Sometimes they knock on doors. Perry distributes fentanyl testing strips at no cost. (William Widmer / Redux) “We didn’t invent grassroots harm reduction,” Brooke Parker told me. She helps run a street-outreach harm-reduction organization called SOAR in Charleston, West Virginia. “This is what happens when public health fails. Communities step up, especially in Appalachia.” For Parker, the work is about much more than giving people harm-reduction supplies; it’s about building trust and connection. But, she said, people view her willingness to help people who use drugs—to give them what they need to stay healthy without judgment or questions—as naive or even radical.The pushback against SOAR has been aggressive, and the organization has stopped handing out syringes. Parker said that ostracizing people who use drugs has become so normalized that some people no longer see them as humans. Her empathy comes from personal experience—she’s in recovery herself—as well as from her upbringing. “I remember my dad telling me when I was younger, ‘Love people through hard things.’ That’s the whole idea behind agape, love. It’s unending … There’s no other way; people just end up alone. And if you’re alone, you don’t get anything. You don’t get anything done. We’re meant to be in community. We’re meant to take care of each other.”Grassroots harm-reduction advocates’ organizing principle is love. This kind of love is not admonishing people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And it’s not the showy, egocentric do-goodism primed for viral videos. Radical love is unconditional, and so is evidence-based harm reduction, which asks nothing from the people being helped, not even a tinge of reciprocity. As the preacher, writer, and harm-reduction advocate Blyth Barnow told me: “Radical love is incredibly ordinary. It’s just … of course this is how you act.” But it’s also visionary—a way of seeing what is possible for the person in front of you.Joe Biden’s platform for ending the opioid crisis supports important interventions, including expanded access to treatment, harm reduction, and health care. But he has spoken in favor of measures such as mandatory treatment for substance use, which takes away a person's agency and is not proven to be effective, and drug courts, in which a judge essentially supervises treatment. The people most harmed by the structural violence of these policies, and by a lack of adequate health care, are poor, and many of them are people of color. Combatting the overdose crisis by punishing people who use drugs through the criminal-justice system will not work.[Read: The opioid epidemic might be much worse than we thought]Federal, state, and local governments should heed the advice of harm-reduction advocates. Because the drug supply is full of fentanyl, people need more fentanyl-testing strips, safe consumption spaces, and access to regulated medication. Allowing harm-reduction programs to use federal dollars to purchase syringes, which is currently prohibited, would be an important policy change. Funding to fight the opioid epidemic, as well as the opioid settlement money from lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, needs to reach grassroots programs in order to help them become more sustainable. Finally, more official harm-reduction work should move out of health departments and into the streets. Syringe-service programs can be gateways to better health and, if folks are ready, to treatment. They are a place for people to experience radical love and potentially build connections—to nonjudgmental health care and to a supportive community.Harm reduction doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to meet people where they’re at. I’ve seen successful harm reduction carried out in storefronts, in vans, and, in Perry’s case, at some card tables in a grassy lot. On summer days in Newark, after getting a hotdog and some harm-reduction supplies, folks head for the shade of the hackberry and maple. They talk and rest in this cool refuge. This is their safe space, and they are loved.
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