The quick answer: The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act (mostly known by Matthew Shepard’s name). And this might be the only option the Florida Justice Department has in moving forward to arrest George Zimmerman and charge him with murder.
The nation is outraged that in 2012 an unarmed, African-American, 17 year-old high school student can be shot dead by a neighborhood watch captain because his egregious offense was “walking while black” in a gated community.
By now you are familiar with the story—on February 26, Trayvon Martin left a 7-Eleven convenience store to head back home to his father’s fiancée’s gated community in the Retreat At Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, 28, of mixed ethnic descent (mother’s Peruvian, and father’s Jewish—he identifies as Hispanic) began following Trayvon and called the Sanford Police Department. Although Zimmerman was advised by his superior not to pursue Trayvon he shot Trayvon in self- defense after a physical altercation initiated supposedly by Trayvon.
Was Zimmerman motivated by racism; therefore, racially profiling Trayvon?
And was Zimmerman’s act also a hate crime?
Many politicians are throwing around the h-word concerning Trayvon’s murder. Now many African-Americans are, too.
Renowned African American filmmaker Tyler Perry told CNN.com that “Racial profiling should be a hate crime investigated by the FBI. That way local government can’t make the decision on whether or not these people get punished.”
Perry recalled his frightening experience when he was pulled LAPD for making an illegal turn and having tinted windows. Once a black officer pulled up at the scene recognizing Perry. The arresting officers apologized and let him go. Perry stated that the incident, however, has stayed with him, opening his eyes to what type of treatment he might have endured if it wasn’t for his celebrity status.
In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in law. Many African-Americans were irate that their protection under the law—which they argue they have fought for since being shipped to America in 1619—had to be associated with a white gay male who was killed in 1998.
Some African Americans, and, of course, heterosexual homophobes, wanted to know why couldn’t they have the James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act act solely to protect them. Many further argued that the law would serve to solely protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and queer Americans and would do precious little to protect them, particularly since the bill is commonly referred to as the Matthew Shepard Act.
“The more time I spend in the LGBT community’s civil rights movement the more I’m struck by the need for all the various human communities to support one another…Trayvon’s death is as personal to me as any white lesbian’s death. Trayvon is my brother, and whether one is black, white, gay or straight, we are all human beings together in this struggle for human dignity. It’s as simple as that,” Carol Fischer, wrote me in an email. Fischer’s a white lesbian and producer of bloomingOUT, a weekly queer radio show on WFHB Radio Station in Bloomington, IN.
In 1998 both James Byrd Jr., and Matthew Shepard were victims of bias-motivated crimes. Byrd, an African American was murdered by three white supremacists who chained him to the back of their pick-up truck at his ankles and dragged along a three mile asphalt road until he was dismembered. Shepard was tortured, tethered to a fence and left to die because he was gay.
With Florida’s Stand Your Ground permitting Zimmerman to walk without charges, the Shepard-Byrd statute not only reminds us of how bias-motivated crimes links gays and blacks together but that it’s also the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family seeking justice.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes - “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim. Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As an religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”
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