Just three years ago, 15-year-old Lawrence King of Oxnard, Calif., was shot to death by a fellow student inside his school's computer lab. In the weeks leading up to the shooting, King was repeatedly harassed after telling classmates he was gay. His murder stunned the middle-class beach community.
Now Brandon McInerney, 14, will be required to serve 51 years in prison if found guilty in adult court. McInerney, "is just as much a victim as Lawrence," says Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. "He's a victim of homophobia and hate."
Intolerance and discrimination have always worked their way into the fabric of this country. Race, religion and other dissimilarities bring out the worst in some people. But violent actions brought forth by these contingencies were not labeled as "hate crimes" until the 1960s. Now such acts are prosecutable by law -- and as of two years ago law enforcement has more help coming down the chain. In October 2009 President Obama signed The Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for Matthew Sheppard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man dragged to his death in Texas the same year. The act expanded the definition of hate crimes to include people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, but it also gave local law enforcement more tools (and money) at their disposal.
"[The bill] allows federal officials to prosecute hate crimes in a way they couldn't before," explains Scott Simpson of the Anti-Defamation League. It's crucial law enforcement agencies and the FBI keep marginal hate groups on their radar. But it's not completely up to them. Many departments have also found successful ways of keeping citizens educated and aware of discriminatory activity in their communities.
The target of known hate groups is always in flux. Although racial and religious minorities are always common marks, organizations that keep tabs on the issues, like the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), note a current trend in these groups shifting their focus to center on illegal immigration issues. Statistics from the SPLC, a nonprofit civil rights organization founded by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr. in 1971, indicate the last 10 years have witnessed a slow but steady rise in the number of hate groups in the United States. Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at SPLC, says his organization counted 932 groups in 2009, up from 602 in 2000. He goes on to say this growth is likely almost entirely driven by the issue of non-white immigration and the exploitation of that issue by traditional Klan and neo-Nazi groups.
"In other words, they haven't been talking about the evils of black people, gay people and the Jews," says Potok. "It's been all about undocumented people crossing the border. From their point of view, it's both a racial issue and an issue that has much broader residence. And it's much easier to recruit people."
Many white supremacists are furious at the census projection that whites will lose their majority in the United States by the year 2050. In San Diego, the United Society of Aryan Skinheads (USAS) and the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a derivative of the American Nazi party along the West Coast, are increasing their numbers in the region.
Jeff Hudgins, assistant chief with the San Diego Police Department, calls it a "perfect storm" of racism, spurred on by the election of a black president and the economy. San Diego's Sovereign Citizens movement is another virulently anti-government, anti-authority organization that is known to clash with law enforcement. Hudgins notes "the typical Sovereign Citizen Freeman type activity is generally financial based; however, we are seeing an increase in weapons and violent confrontations."