The quick answer: The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act (mostly known by Matthew Shepard’s name).
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, he said, 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 governments can’t make the decision on whether or not these people get punished.”
Perry recalled his frightening experience when he was pulled over by the 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 into 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 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.” Carol Fischer wrote me in an email. “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.” 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 by homophobes.
The Shepard-Byrd statute not only reminds us of how bias-motivated crimes link gays and Blacks together, but also that it’s also the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family in seeking justice.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow.