Students at American University in Washington D.C. found bananas hung from trees and lamp posts covered in racially offensive messages targeting African American students. The bananas were hung using string nooses. The incident occurred the first day of finals week in May of 2017, which also happened to be the day the first female African American student president was due to take office. Surveillance footage shows a lone white male walking around the campus in the early hours of the morning. The university, Washington Metropolitan Police, and the FBI have all identified this man as the suspect. They also said they were investigating the incident as a hate crime, making it the second suspected hate crime in two years to occur on the university’s campus.
Unfortunately, the incidents at American University mirror a greater national trend. The FBI reported a 6% rise in hate crimes in 2015, the latest data available. Just as disturbing, in Washington D.C., hate crimes rose an astonishing 62% in 2016; from 66 in 2015 to 107 in 2016, even though overall crime has decreased by 9% in the past two years.
The Bias Related Crime Act of 1989 defines a hate crime in the District of Columbia as any crime, whether committed or attempted, “that demonstrates an accused’s prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibility, homelessness, physical disability, matriculation, or political affiliation.” The act further describes bias or hate as a motive for a crime, meaning that a hate crime is not a crime itself but acts as an enhancement to a crime. This is further reflected in that the courts can enhance the maximum fine or jail time up to 1 ½ times the maximum amount for any charge when charged with a hate crime.
The Washington Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has reports that 69 hate crimes are already under investigation in 2017 from January to the end of June. If this trend continues, 2017 will see another vast increase in hate crimes investigated in the District. Between 2015 and 2016, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, and gender identity bias hate crimes had the largest increases. MPD also reported that 12 of the 18 religion biased crimes reported in 2016 were committed against people of the Jewish faith. The same year, the famous China Town/ Gallery Place crosswalk, which is decorated in images of the Chinese Zodiac, was defaced twice in religious based hated crimes. The first was an anti-Semitic instance in which the word “Jews” was written in the Chinese Zodiac rats and swastikas were also drawn. A suspect has since been arrested. A second incident targeted Muslims, in which suspects wrote racial slurs in the Chinese Zodiac pigs. From January to June in 2017, national origin, race, religion, and political afflation bias hate crimes were up for the same period in 2016.
Both Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Acting Chief of Police Peter Newsham have said the rise in hate crimes in Washington could be attributed to both the increased anxiety of the presidential election as well as an increase in crime reporting. The last presidential election cycle, 2011 and 2012, also had an increase in reported hate crimes. Furthermore, the MPD reported Northwest Washington accounted for 69% of all reported hate crimes in the district, which they attributed to citizens being more inclined to talk to authorities.
Mayor Bowser has also said she was increasing efforts to reach out to the transgender community after two disturbing and national media grabbing hate crimes occurred around the Fourth of July.
A group of four suspects were accused of assault and attempted robbery of a transgender woman. They have also accused of five additional robberies, two of which targeted transgender women resulting in the death of one of the victims. The four suspects have been charged with Robbery Conspiracy and First Degree Felony Murder While Armed in the death of the transgender woman. Officials say the murder is being investigated as a hate crime. If found guilty, the maximum jail time for the felony murder charge will increase from 60 years to 90 years due to the hate crime enhancement.
In another incident on July 5th, a transgender woman was hit by a car in what investigators are calling a gender identity bias hate crime. The woman was crossing the street after leaving a club when the suspect ran her down with his car and drove away. An 18-year-old suspect has been arrested for the hit and run. He has been charged with Aggravated Assault While Armed. Prosecutors argue the suspect used his car as a weapon justifying the charge “while armed”. The woman is in critical yet stable condition according to authorities.
After these incidents Mayor Muriel Bowser held a press conference to denounce these actions and reaffirmed her support of at-risk communities. She said she was working with multiple institutions to try to reduce hate based crimes in the District and to increase support for targeted groups, such as the transgender and Jewish communities. Six transgender people have been killed in Washington since 2002. Mayor Bowser stated, “[Washington D.C. is] a place of tolerance and respect, a place where every resident has a pathway to opportunity. We are a Washington that values respect, inclusivity, and diversity.” Unfortunately, taking into consideration current crime trends, it seems not everyone agrees.