What Makes a Hate Crime a Hate Crime?

| Wed Mar. 16, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

This is from the AP last Wednesday: 

Authorities are investigating whether an Arkansas man whose body was found dressed in women's clothes was targeted in part because of what he was wearing.

FBI spokesman Steve Frazier said Wednesday that federal investigators are looking into the death of 25-year-old Marcal Camero Tye as a civil rights matter. Local authorities say they haven't ruled out a hate crime, but they're also considering other motives.

Authorities believe that a car dragged Tye's body, dressed in women's slacks, a blouse and a bra, for about 100 feet along a highway near Forrest City in eastern Arkansas. It's not clear whether the dragging killed him. Autopsy results weren't immediately available.

This is the update, the next day: 

Local authorities have ruled out a hate crime, but an FBI spokesman says federal investigators are now looking into the death and whether it constitutes a civil rights violation—which could include a hate crime.

That's about where the news stops. Which left me with two questions about this story. For the answer to the first one, let's turn to St. Francis County sheriff Bobby May, whom I called to ask how authorities determined the death wasn't a hate crime (and so quickly).

"We're reasonably sure it's not," May said. He explained (heads up: sort of graphically) that Tye was shot through the head, which killed him, and then got caught underneath the suspect's vehicle when he was trying to get away. The car backed up several times after the body got stuck; authorities think the suspect was trying to get the body out, not trying to drag it. It appears the victim "was picked up for sexual purposes." The FBI, May said, was the one responsible for ruling out the possibility of a hate crime, and the sheriff's department agreed. "It's obvious it wasn't. You know, prostitutes, these types of folks—it's a risk. Whenever you're soliciting, things of this nature happen sometimes."

Was it not possible, I asked, that if Tye was transgendered, then his murder could be both a prostitution deal gone wrong and a hate crime?

"Anything's possible," May said.

The FBI won't comment on whether it made the call that the killing isn't a hate crime. So, here's my other question: Does it matter whether they call it that or not?

Ryken Grattet, a UC Davis sociology professor and hate-crime expert, says the designation might mean prosecutors would seek a slightly greater punishment for the perpetrator. Definitely the designation would determine how the crime was counted in state and federal hate-crime statistics. But most significantly: "It matters a lot for making behavior visible. If it's not a hate crime, it gets much less media coverage. Otherwise it's just another tragic crime."

Somebody killed a trashy hooker? Boring. The bad news about the media is that it doesn't really care when poor, non-white, and/or non-square people get fatally shot and repeatedly backed over with a vehicle in eastern Arkansas. So it's kind of a victory that it does care when someone is murdered because of his race or sexuality. Everyone has heard of the gay activist who was killed in Uganda, home to the much-publicized "kill the gays" bill. You probably haven't heard of this Arkansas case, though, because the news about it ended the second the possibility of it being a hate crime dried up.

Sheriff May and the FBI are obviously well qualified to judge the motives of a murder, but I'll continue to check in with them and follow the details of the case. Because if it is a hate crime, it is important that it be labeled as such. Because there would be articles, vigils, maybe eventually laws. It would be in newspapers and on TV screens, where we'd have to look at it, tangible and horrible evidence that explicit legal discrimination against groups has consequences in places closer than Uganda.

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