Hate Crimes: The Gateway Drug
Why cities need to get serious about hate crimes if they want to protect inclusive democracy from authoritarian movements
By Eric K. Ward
On Father’s Day I found myself in the street outside my home in Portland, Oregon wielding a baseball bat to intervene in a hate crime. Two days later an unrepentant Jeremy Christian was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for killing two white men and injuring a third as they intervened in Christian’s racist harassment of two young Black women on a MAX train in Portland.
While one could say American justice was served by his conviction, there is no cause for celebration here. And what happened in response to the hate crime outside my home that day — or, more accurately, what didn’t happen — illustrates how much more work this city, like every other, has to do if everyone is to have an equal shot at living, loving, worshipping, and working free from bigotry and fear.
As American cities grapple with containing the rising threat of authoritarian movements at the same time as being forced to rethink 20th century policing, they need to get serious about how they handle hate crimes. Hate crimes are like a gateway drug. Do virtually nothing and you’ve opened the door even wider for far-right movements to shut down democratic practice. Go beyond rhetoric to respond meaningfully to hate crimes, and you’ve buttressed inclusive democracy to withstand authoritarian attacks.
Go back to when I was a kid in Long Beach, California. By the time I was in junior high, school desegregation was fully underway. That meant having to leave my primarily Black, Latino and poor white neighborhood five days a week to attend a school in an all white neighborhood. Walking back and forth every day from the city bus to the steps of my school, I was regularly the victim of hate crimes and intimidation — not from other children, but from grown adults. No one intervened.
Walking while Black. Going to school while Black. Growing up to a world where still, nearly every day, I have to read about those who look like me: killed by vigilantes for jogging while Black, terrorized by a mob of white men for riding their bikes while Black, doused in lighter fluid for driving while Black, found hanging from trees, dead — six Black men in a less than a month — written off by authorities as suicides.
That’s the context. That’s what’s in the air I’ve breathed all my life as a Black man in America. The same air Jeremy Christian, a troubled white kid, breathed in too.
Fast forward to the night before Christian’s rampage on the MAX train when he assaulted and threatened to kill another Black woman, Demetria Hester. The police officer who responded let Christian walk away. A month earlier, police had taken a baseball bat from Christian at a Patriot Prayer rally where, wearing a American Revolutionary War flag like a cape, he riled up protestors and counter-protestors with racist slurs and the Nazi salute.
“I blame the system for creating and facilitating people like Jeremy,” Hester told the court during Christian’s sentencing.
We have to look at the real crime here. Yes, Christian committed hate crimes, assault, and murder, and continued to spew vicious racist hatred even during his sentencing. We are supposed to feel satisfaction that he’s been held accountable. But the bigger culprits have once again gotten off with no consequences.
Let’s start with the bias and inadequacy of the policing system that let an out-of-control Christian walk away from the assault on Hester. Had he been Black, he would have been lucky to have been merely arrested and not shot or choked to death on the spot. Had Christian been taken into custody that night, blood would not have flowed down the aisle of that MAX train the next day.
And then there’s the criminal negligence and moral bankruptcy of our broader public safety paradigm that fails the mentally ill and addicted everyday. Christian clearly suffers from mental illness. Why had we as a society not intervened earlier to prevent him from being such a public menace? He’d spent most of his adult life in prison. What had that done to prevent — or even to dispose him towards — the murders he would eventually commit?
Lastly, there’s the pernicious and pervasive racism and antisemitism that Christian filled his lungs with everyday. Racism and antisemitism that no doubt was heavily reinforced in the prisons that warehoused him. Racism that allowed him to walk away after assaulting Hester and push the limits even further — fatally — the next day.
The fact that Jeremy Christian will now spend the rest of his life in prison is a sign not of the triumph of hate crime prosecution, but a symptom of the failure of the entire system. A system that failed to intervene effectively until it was too late.
I know about that failed system — I walked through it every day just to get to school — and I know what it takes to try to survive that system. And sadly, that’s what I experienced once more on Father’s Day outside my house.
One moment, I’m on the phone with Apple support, enjoying the sun coming in through the front windows. Then I see something horrific, an individual swinging a metal rod at two individuals in motorized wheelchairs. Their attendants are trying to pull the chairs back on the sidewalk but the perpetrator swings at them every time they get close to the two who are the target of his attack.
I threw on shoes, grabbed a bat out of the sports box, and ran outside. I started shouting, “Leave them alone!” He stopped for a brief moment then started to swing the metal rod again. As I closed the distance between him and my baseball bat, he started to charge me, then thought better of it and backed off. I used my body as a blockade between him and the folks in the wheelchairs. Their attendants managed to help them speed away down the block. As I pulled out my phone to call 911 the attacker ran around me, throwing a rock at his targets and pursuing them.
I didn’t dare follow. Why? Imagine what happens when a Black man runs down the streets with anything perceived to be a weapon. Oh wait — we don’t have to imagine that. It’s on the news almost nightly. I couldn’t give them the protection they deserved. That, my friend, is white supremacy in action.
As far as I know, the responding officers did a good job with de-escalation. My fiancée drove by the scene down the block where two squad cars had hemmed him in as officers tried to get him to drop the metal rod. And then half an hour later, I’m trying to come down from the trauma-triggering adrenaline overdose in my day, another movement outside my window catches my eye. It’s a cop car passing by, and as it moves from view, there’s the perpetrator sitting on the curb, soaking up the sun a mere 20 feet from where he had just committed a hate crime.
I wish there were a better ending to this story. Seeing him right there near my house just after I’d intervened, knowing he’s a neighbor and likely to act this way again without the treatment he obviously needs, I called 911 once more. Nothing we can do, I’m told, with no further explanation. So I do what someone who’s worked with municipal systems on improving their response to hate violence for more than two decades does next: I call a contact in City Hall. I get a call back four minutes later, great; then a text that night reporting they’re still waiting to hear back from the precinct. And that’s it.
More than a week has gone by, I’ve heard nothing further. Nothing about what they learned from reviewing the security camera footage from the nearby school, which 911 had told me they were accessing. Nothing about the intervention systems that were being activated to prevent the next, possibly worse, incident with this individual. Not even a courtesy call to me to see how I might be doing after being in the midst of this. Not that I’m asking for special treatment, but if you don’t get back to a nationally-recognized civil rights leader in your town who’s been involved in a hate crime, who do you get back to?
I wasn’t the only one around that day when two folks in motorized wheelchairs almost had their skulls cracked open. The community gardens were being tended by other neighbors, many of them immigrants, possibly refugees. I don’t blame them for not running over. The majority of hate crimes are never reported because people don’t believe anything will be done. Sadly, they’re too often right.
Portland has taken a few solid steps towards containing the white nationalist groups that influenced Jeremy’s Christian’s twisted thinking. But it means nothing if the city — every city — can’t get a handle on hate crimes, doesn’t respond appropriately to victims of hate violence, won’t fund meaningful systems of intervention. That’s the true test of making the air safe for everyone to breathe.
If we are to get serious about restructuring 20th century policing into something that truly prioritizes community safety — the safety of every community — it means funding crisis response teams and mental health and addiction services that keep people like Jeremy Christian from becoming a front man for white nationalist hate violence. Making it easier for victims of hate crimes to pursue civil redress. Ensuring that when law enforcement is necessary, they are well trained and well supported.
Chances are, the perpetrator on my block will eventually act again. If (when) he does something even worse, we will all hang our heads, shed tears, paint signs and ask ourselves, How did it happen? But the truth is, we already know.
Eric K. Ward is executive director of Western States Center.