Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Here’s the hate rap sheet on James Wenneker von Brunn. In 1981 he loudly boasted that he’d take Fed Reserve members hostage, a boast he tried to act on. In 1999 he penned a book with the inflammatory, violence inciting title, “Kill the Best Gentiles.” In 2003, he sketched a fawning portrait of William Turner, the guru of executed Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. In between there were long stints spent hobnobbing with a pack of outlandish, violent prone, Neo Nazi groups. von Brunn’s punishment for the telephone book thick list of hate threats was to serve a 6 ½ year out of an 11 year sentence in a federal pen. It took two years after he was sentenced before he did the time.
The question then is how could a guy who made absolutely no effort to hide his intent to wreak murder and mayhem on Jews and blacks and had a personal track record of acting out the lunacy run loose for so long? One answer is that von Brunn and the thousands of others that rant, rail, and spew hate in speeches, on websites, in videos and in their fringe, kooky publications are simply exercising their first amendment right; a right that can’t be abridged no matter how scary they sound. von Brunn has that right.
The other answer is that even when the von Brunns are known tracked, monitored and surveilled and worse commit hate acts, they often evade full punishment. This has nothing to do with the First Amendment, but rather muddled, confused, and outright lax enforcement and prosecution of hate acts. The FBI and local law enforcement agencies long knew about von Brunn’s propensity for violence. But even if he had committed a violent act in his home state of Maryland he still might not have been prosecuted under state and especially federal hate crime statutes.
Federal prosecutors are loath to step on the toes of police and prosecutors in criminal cases no matter how badly the crime is tainted by race, gender or religious hatred. Federal prosecutors flatly say that the hate perpetrators are more likely to be convicted and get stiff sentences in state court. That makes good legal and political sense.
But that’s not the only reason for their hands off of the von Brunns. Except in the highest profile cases, they see these prosecutions as no-win cases with little political gain, and the risk of making enemies of local police, DAs, and state officials. The rare time that the feds cracked down on civil rights violence was during the 1960s civil rights battles. The wave of violence then stirred national and international revulsion and forced then President Lyndon Johnson to order more civil rights prosecutions.
The only exceptions to the set in stone rule that prosecutors stay out of state cases occurs when a hate crime triggers a major riot, generates mass protests or attracts major press attention. The Rodney King beating case in Los Angles in 1992 is still the best example of how it took a mass civil upheaval to move the feds to go full blast after a conviction of the police that beat King, and then only after a failed prosecution in state court. The King case is also an example of how criminal cases with clear civil rights abuses become highly politicized and racially divisive.
Hate crimes may be horrific but they are largely seen as common crimes and are treated as such. Few state prosecutors will chance inflaming racial passions and hatreds by slapping a hate crime tag on a case.
There's also the belief that hate crimes are mostly a thing of the past. When they do occur, they are isolated acts committed by a handful of quacks, and unreconstructed bigots, and that state authorities vigorously report and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes.
When Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it compelled the FBI to collect figures on hate violence. However, it did not compel police agencies to report them. Record keeping on hate crimes is still left up to the discretion of local police chiefs and city officials. Many police departments still refuse to report hate crimes, or to label crimes in which gays, Jews, and minorities are targeted because of race, religion, or sexual preference as hate crimes. Still other police departments don't bother compiling them because they regard hate crimes as a politically loaded minefield that can tarnish their image and create even more political friction. The official indifference by many police agencies to hate crimes prevents federal officials, even if they wanted to more aggressively enforce civil rights laws, from accurately gauging the magnitude of civil rights violence.
Civil rights leaders are dumbfounded at the apparent refusal of many federal prosecutors to recognize what are obvious hate acts. When prosecutors, however, try to sort out whether a crime is a hate motivated crime or just plain crime it's anything but obvious. That’s just enough space for the von Brunns of America to crawl through and run loose.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard weekly in Los Angeles Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com