(*This story has been updated)
Paraphrasing Muslim holy text, Wasi Mohammed laid out the challenge facing policymakers at a time when hate crimes are on the rise in Pennsylvania and nationwide.
“The measure of a nation’s greatness,” said Mohammed, the former executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, is judged by how it treats and protects its most vulnerable citizens. And “by that measure, we’re not doing too great.”
Mohammed speaks with some authority: His organization was on the frontlines of the relief effort during last October’s murderous rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood that left 11 people dead and a wound that people in that western Pennsylvania community are still trying to heal.
And on Wednesday, Mohammed was on the frontlines again, as Democrats in the state House and Senate rolled out a package of anti-hate crimes legislation that not only ups the penalties for those who would target people based on what they believe, or who they love, but also improve reporting and tracking of such offenses.
The end goal, Mohammed said, is to make sure that “Pennsylvania is closer to what William Penn envisioned,” and that the state is “standing in front of the nation in pushing back hatred.”
State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents Squirrel Hill in the House and is spearheading the effort, knows he has his work cut out for him in an institution where, if change happens at all, it happens at a glacial pace.
“We know that this has to be bipartisan. I am optimistic, but I am also a realistic,” said Frankel, who convened a working group of faith and ethnic leaders from across the spectrum to formulate the legislation. He described the bills as a “historic moment.”
Frankel said Wednesday that his working group had also included representatives from the office of House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who was supportive of the effort, and that he intended to reach out to House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.
Mike Straub, a spokesman for Cutler, said in an email that the GOP floor leader was open to such a meeting.
“We agree with our colleagues that crimes of all kinds are wrong and will continue to work towards reducing violent crimes across Pennsylvania,” Straub said. “The next steps for each of these proposals will be determined by relevant committee leadership and committee members.”
Frankel and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, will both be pushing substantially similar bills on their respective sides of the Capitol. In its current form, the package would:
- Increase the penalties for hate crimes convictions
- Provide law enforcement with training to identify and react to hate crimes
- Provide education and rehabilitation for those convicted of hate crimes
- Extend hate crimes protections to LGBTQ and disabled Pennsylvanians
- Provide anonymous reporting for school and college students
- Give the Attorney General’s Office concurrent jurisdiction in crimes involving ethnic intimidation (Senate bill)
- Provide the right of private action for hate crimes victims (Senate bill)
- Create a hate groups database within the state Attorney General’s Office (Senate bill)
“We can’t legislate hate. There are no laws that we can write that will change what is in someone’s heart,” Costa said in a statement. “The attack on [Tree of Life] and other hate crimes around the state have shown that there are gaps in our laws. We can do better.”
— ByJohnLMicek (@ByJohnLMicek) October 30, 2019
In 2018, there were 89 reported acts of anti-Semitism in Pennsylvania, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Nationally, there were 59 victims of anti-Semitic violence last year — three times the 2017 tally, according to ADL data.
Those who hate one group based on their beliefs or orientation are more than likely to harbor hate for others, Josh Sayles, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said.
“No one says, ‘I hate Jews, but Muslims are okay,” he said. “Hate doesn’t discriminate.”