President Clinton called for an “all-out campaign” against hate crimes at the first-ever White House conference on the issue. The question of the day: What can be done?
No one found a magic bullet that would end crimes targeted at individuals because of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. But the mood in the packed auditorium at George Washington University was hopeful.
The president invited about 300 community activists, state legislators and police officers to listen to speeches and kick around solutions in workshops lead by various Cabinet heads, such as Education Secretary Richard Riley, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo.
The conference renewed a federal focus on hate crimes, said Bill Wassmuth, executive director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a Seattle-based nonprofit group. “The conference sets a tone and reaffirms that this behavior is not OK,” he said.
Wassmuth, formerly of Coeur d’Alene, said the incidence of hate crimes in the Pacific Northwest has slowly decreased during the last three years. Last year police reported 611 hate crimes in the six-state region of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming.
But Wassmuth isn’t sure how to interpret the decrease - whether it’s because fewer hate crimes were actually committed or because those crimes are going unreported.
Wassmuth speaks from experience. As a pastor in Coeur d’Alene, he helped spearhead a task force in the mid-1980s on race relations in North Idaho. That activity so incensed white supremacists that they “blew out the back of my house” with a pipe bomb.
At the conference, Clinton spoke of recent victims of hate crimes, including a 13-year-old black boy nearly beaten to death for simply riding his bike in the wrong neighborhood and a gay man murdered as he walked home from work.
“This is the antithesis to the values that define us as a nation,” the president said.
Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and other speakers talked of stopping hate crimes using a three-pronged attack - education, stronger laws and vigorous prosecution. In fact, a bill introduced in the Senate later Monday would give federal prosecutors more authority to go after hate-crime perpetrators.
Clinton went on to pledge an additional 50 FBI agents to work in a hate crime unit and said the National Crime Victims Survey will now include questions about hate crimes to better track them.
After the speeches, Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno led a discussion with activists to see how different areas of the country dealt with the violence. The group included a California state legislator active in gay and lesbian issues, an elementary school principal and Tammie Schnitzer, who mounted a communitywide resistance that quashed a rash of hate crimes in Billings, Mont., that was the subject of the documentary, “Not in Our Town.”
Raymond Delos Reyes, a sophomore at Seattle’s Franklin High School, was the youngest member of the panel. Reyes, who has been active in the Anti-Defamation League’s youth group, explained that while his school is ethnically diverse, students remain “socially segregated.”
Clinton said a coordinated effort would be needed to break down these barriers. “We need to reach these kids,” he said. “Some will teach them to hate; we need to teach them a different way.”
, DataTimes MEMO: See 2 related stories under the headlines: 1. Fighting hate 2. Education important in fighting hate crimes