In August of 2019, someone spray-painted threatening and anti-Semitic messages on a South Minneapolis public school just five blocks from the home of DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein. Included was a swastika and a slur against Jews.
But because the graffiti wasn’t on the home or property of those covered by Minnesota’s hate crimes law, what would appear to be a violation of the statute might not be. That could mean graffiti on a synagogue would fall under the law — but the same messages on a building across the street might not. And public buildings, such as the Minneapolis school where the anti-Semitic message appeared, also might not be covered. And while the statute includes language that could be interpreted more broadly, it is vague enough to be unclear.
Legislation recently proposed at the Minnesota Legislature would change that. “I call it closing a loophole,” said Hornstein. “(Graffiti) may not be directed at a particular individual or a specific institution even. But once that happens, then an entire community is affected. It was a pretty jarring experience.”
“Many of us have seen racist and anti-Semitic graffiti painted on public schools,” said Carin Mrotz, the executive director of Jewish Community Action. “Under current law, due to these buildings not being owned by targeted groups, these incidents would not be reported as a pattern of hate in spite of how they might impact the children and staff who walk by them daily.”
It is that “community intimidation” that the bill, HF 1691, is aimed at. The proposal would also add groups to the list of those protected by bias. Current law covers crimes based on a person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, national origin and disability. The bill would include “ethnicity,” “gender identity” and “gender expression.”
According to most recent uniform crime report statistics collected by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, there were 146 bias incidents reported in 2019, up from 127 in 2018 — numbers that came before the reported increase in hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans due to misplaced blame for the COVID-19 pandemic. Hornstein said an estimated two-thirds of hate crimes are not reported, according to surveys. “When they go unreported, there’s no community conversation, there’s no way to hold the perpetrators accountable.”
“We know that hate has been rising across the country and here in Minnesota where communities have been targeted by violence and intimidation,” said Mrotz, whose organization is part of the Communities Combating Hate Coalition, which was formed to push for changes to state law and to make other efforts to bring attention to the increasing number of incidents.
The bill would also ask the state Department of Human Rights and the Minnesota Board of Police Officer Training and Standards to work with community groups to develop updated training curriculum for law enforcement officers. And it would allow community groups to help victims who are reluctant to make a criminal complaint to provide information to Human Rights that could be compiled in regular reports.
Right now, the only data that is collected comes through crime reports. But backers of the bill say many victims are frightened or distrustful of police and don’t report incidents through those channels. “That means there are many stories that go untold or unheard or become part of the bigger picture of what is happening in Minnesota,” Mrotz said.
Nick Kor, the senior manager of movement building at the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, cited the recent killings of six Asian women at spas in Atlanta as evidence of a pattern of hate crimes aimed at Asians in the United States. “Here in Minnesota we have seen verbal and physical abuse on the streets, at stores and other public places,” Kor said.
Many victims prefer to come to groups such as CAAL rather than the government “because they want to be heard and supported,” Kor said. “Our communities are scared, they’re worried and they’re asking for help.”
The Senate version of the bill, SF 2003, is authored by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St Louis Park, and has not yet been heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the legislation is being kept alive in House omnibus bills. The funding for the Department of Human Rights community reporting program and the police officer training updates are in the House Judiciary Committee budget bill. The other aspects could end up in the committee’s policy omnibus, Hornstein said.
“I’m hopeful that one way or another that parts of this will be in the conference committee,” he said. “I’m very confident of that. This issue could come down to end-of-session negotiations.