Antisemitic vandalism prompts new lawmaker to push for hate crime law overhaul

Antisemitic vandalism at the Kent County Democratic Party, Nov. 14, 2022 | Facebook photo

By Jon King, Michigan Advance

Following the spray-painting of antisemitic symbols on a West Michigan Democratic Party office, a newly elected state lawmaker says he plans to introduce legislation that would better deal with such incidents.

On Monday, officials with the Kent County Democratic Party reported that their headquarters in Grand Rapids had been vandalized with antisemitic graffiti, including swastikas, crosshairs and the number 1488, which the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says is a white supremacist hate symbol.

Party Chair Bill Saxton issued a statement condemning the vandalism.

“This is a reminder that we must remain vigilant in our pursuit of justice and equality for all,” he said. “We cannot and will not allow hate like this to flow through our community. I am asking all of you to stand with us and send a resounding message that this form of hate is not welcome here and we will continue to fight against it every day of every year.”

The incident comes amid a dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents in the United States, with the ADL reporting that 2021 saw a total of 2,717 reports of assault, harassment and vandalism, an all-time high.

Michigan ranked fifth in the nation with 112 incidents in 2021.

“This represents the highest number of incidents on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979 – an average of more than seven incidents per day and a 34 percent increase year over year,” said the organization.

Also denouncing the incident was state Representative-elect Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield), who won the 20th House District on Nov. 8 as part of an historic wave that placed Michigan Democrats in charge of both the House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years.

“Incidents like this are exactly why Michigan needs an institutional vandalism statute, enabling a prosecutor to charge the perpetrator of this act with a hate crime. This will be my first bill come January,” Arbit tweeted.

The ADL defines institutional vandalism statutes as those “which are designed to specifically punish bias-motivated defacement, desecration, or destruction of houses of worship, religious schools and institutions, and cemeteries.”

While 42 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, Michigan is not among them.

Arbit, the founder of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus, told the Michigan Advance that while it’s unclear whether the Kent County incident would be covered under such a law, he is still determined to propose it, as well as support several other measures to strengthen Michigan’s protections against hate crimes.

“This really sort of rises above the level of hate speech and gets to the point of intimidation, where there’s a communal victim and not just a singular victim,” said Arbit. “So it’s really important that we have a statute that addresses the unique nature of a crime like institutional vandalism, which really has an almost terroristic element to it because it is attempting to instill fear in an entire community.”

Arbit said Michigan currently has an ethinc intimidation statute that he believes is vague and insufficient.

“I don’t even know what ethnic intimidation means,”he said. “The statute doesn’t even mention ethnicity, so it’s titled something that it doesn’t even address. And the penalties are so weak in the law. The protected classes do not include sexuality or gender identity. The law is basically not worth the paper it’s written on because prosecutors so often don’t want to charge under it because the evidentiary threshold to proving a crime of bias in court is so substantial, and the penalties are so weak, that it’s just not worth the resources to devote.”

Arbit says his proposed institutional vandalism statute is just one part of a very expansive agenda of hate crimes reform that Michigan needs to embark upon, and one he plans to spearhead in the upcoming session.

“I’m very excited about it,” he said. “We have about six or seven different buckets of issues that we want to tackle, the first being an institutional vandalism statute, which we hope to get right out the gate. And then of course, we want to take a look at the ethnic intimidation statute that we have, retitle it, and call it the hate crimes law.”

Arbit also says the approach he prefers would be one that also looks at alternative sentencing guidelines and similar programming that has a track record of success in other states so that sentencing could include community service in the community that was harmed.

“We really want to tackle hate at its roots and address hate as a social ill, as well as a criminal issue, when it dovetails with a criminal act,” said Arbit. “We also want to make sure we pass a stand alone statute that enables a sentence enhancement so that you can add on a charge for a hate or bias element.”

Other areas Arbit says need to be addressed include requiring law enforcement to have specific training in hate crimes as well as addressing what he sees as a loophole in the law in regards to crimes committed against people who are wrongfully perceived to be part of a certain group.

“So, if you have a Sikh being attacked for being perceived as being Muslim, in some cases, prosecutors are not able to charge under this law. It’s a big glaring hole,” he said.

He would also like to see more done to protect victims, including not just individuals, but also institutions and communities that are targeted.

“That is the really important thing to remember about hate crimes, is that when someone commits a hate crime, there’s not just one victim, there’s an entire community that’s a victim, and it doesn’t even have to be in the state,” he said. “When the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happened, Jews across the country were, frankly, traumatized. When the Sikh temple … in Wisconsin was attacked, Sikhs across the country were traumatized. So, you know, this is something that’s really important to me, as a Jew, as a gay person. Taking on hate crimes is why I ran for office.”

He added his mission in the Legislature is to “transform Michigan from a national lagger to a national leader on the issue of hate crimes.”

Arbit says he is looking forward to having additional conversations with incoming House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, with whom he says he has a close working relationship.

“I know that she knows that this is a top issue,” he said. “I look forward to working very closely hand in hand with her and her department to make sure that the bills that we are proposing are going to be unassailable in terms of their legal bonafides, but also that they are exactly what the legal community needs and, and what our communities across the state need to be protected. We need to make a statement that says there’s no place for hate in Michigan.”

Early in her tenure as AG, Nessel created a hate crimes unit to investigate and prosecute such crimes, saying at the time that her office would act when a criminal offense was motivated by an offender’s bias against a particular group. 

“To do that we intend to work with both federal and local authorities to ensure these crimes are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent possible under the law,” said Nessel.

Despite the unit receiving considerable pushback from Republican legislators about starting the unit, Nessel spokesperson Amber McCann told Michigan Advance that it has since expanded to also include domestic terrorism.

“The attorney general welcomes opportunities to discuss further ways to address hate crimes and domestic terrorism in our state,” said McCann.

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