Hate crime laws, with their roots in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, were originally intended to protect people from violence based on their race or religion.
Some states, and the federal government, also include categories like gender and sexual identity, but some advocates say homeless people are the group most vulnerable to violence, and they should be protected, too.
The question has come up in Traverse City after a violent attack on a homeless camp last Fourth of July weekend. David Whitney was sleeping in a patch of woods behind Central United Methodist Church, when he and three other men were kicked and had stones thrown at them.
“I was sleeping and these young fellas come up and just started kicking us when we were asleep,” says Whitney.
The attack sent Whitney to the hospital. He had a brain hemorrhage, a broken nose and he needed 27 stitches in his face. Whitney says there were three attackers – all of them young men.
“I think they were just out there trying to do something,” he says. “It was easy. People are sleeping. Go kick them around and then go to the next group of people and kick them around. Why would you do that? I don’t know.”
Police arrested two men for the attack, but Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney says he only had enough evidence to charge one of them. He charged 19-year-old Traverse City resident Maayingan Brauker with misdemeanor aggravated assault.
“We reviewed all of the facts, including the medical records, to determine what was an appropriate charge in the case,” says Cooney. “What I can tell you is the most serious charge that we have evidence to support charging is the aggravated assault.”
Aggravated assault carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison or a $1,000-dollar fine. And that doesn’t sit well with Whitney.
“That’s too bad that it’s just a misdemeanor, because those people could’ve killed us, you know?” says Whitney. “You’re laying there and they come up and kick you as hard as they can in your head. That’s like attempted murder to me. That’s not assault.”
A trend toward expansion of hate crime laws
Cooney wishes he could charge Brauker with a more serious offense. But he says the evidence just isn’t there for a charge like attempted murder. It would be easier, he says, if Michigan had a law like they have in Florida, Maryland and Maine. In those states, if you attack a homeless person, you can be charged with a hate crime, and you can receive a much longer sentence.
“I think it sends a message that we’re not going to tolerate violence against homeless persons, and I think that’s important,” says Cooney.
A study by the National Coalition for the Homeless says that since 1998, more homeless people have died from bias-motivated violence than all of the other currently protected classes combined. The coalition is spearheading a national movement to add protections for the homeless in hate crime laws.
Columnist Michael McGough wrote about these issues for the Los Angeles Times when California tried to add homeless people into its hate crime law. McGough isn’t buying the argument that homeless people are targeted because of bias or hatred. He thinks it’s more likely that people attack the homeless because it’s easy.
“Is there a pervasive prejudice against homeless people in society that’s really comparable to prejudice against African-Americans?” asks McGough. “I’m not really sure the answer to that question is ‘yes.’”
McGough says the other problem is that hate crime laws are being watered down by more and more protected classes.
There was a push in California to add veterans to the state’s hate crime law, and last year, Louisiana became the first – and only – state to add police officers as a protected class.
“And I think the problem with that sort of bidding war is that every crime of violence becomes a hate crime,” says McGough.
McGough says the real problem is that penalties for assault aren’t tough enough.
“What are you trying to achieve?” he asks. “Are you trying to make a statement or are you trying to deter people from attacking homeless people? If you could accomplish the latter without playing around with hate crime statutes, why wouldn’t that be enough?”
Right now, there is no effort in Michigan to add homeless people to the state’s hate crime law.
More attacks in Traverse City
Two years ago, Traverse City passed a “Homeless Bill of Rights” - a symbolic resolution that says homeless people should have a right to “move freely without harassment or intimidation.”
But homeless advocates, like Randy Parcher, say attacks have actually increased.
“We hear about ones that never make the newspaper or make the news,” says Parcher. “I know someone who was in their tent [who] got attacked by three or four teenagers. There’s this one last night, there’s been one a few days ago. This has been a lot more increase than there has been in previous years.”
David Whitney says that since the attack last July, things have changed for him.
“Well, I’m more paranoid,” he says. “I mean it’s taken away more of my trust for people. That’s discouraging because you like to trust everybody and think everybody is your friend. And this is just tearing that apart.”
Maayingan Brauker, the man accused of attacking Whitney, is scheduled for trial later this month. Brauker has maintained his innocence since his arrest.