In the late 1990’s, hate swept through the nation once again as many men and women paid the tragic price of the darkness that lies in the streets of America. On June 7, 1998 a young man, James Byrd Jr., was killed by white supremacists because of the color of his skin. On October 12, 1998 another young man, Matthew Shepard, was tortured and killed due to his sexual orientation. These two tragedies paved the way to a triumph for minorities across the country with this new law intended on stopping hate crime in its tracks and on October 22, 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act was signed.
The deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. marked the final straw for American policy makers, tired of the tragedies of their fellow citizens getting murdered on the streets for no other reason than they had a characteristic that other human beings did not care for. Although humans are a lucky species that can see a full range of color, we are blinded by the color of skin, how others love, and the religion that one practices. Our government proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave”, but still we have a large percentage of American citizens that are judged and persecuted for things they have no control over. There has never been a time in history when there was a world without prejudice and hearts filled without hate. Even in the modern world we are faced with mass shooting at music concert, gay bars, and even churches, showing that despite the efforts of the government to make our country more peaceful, all they can do is write new laws to further punish those who seek to inflict pain upon others.
Matthew Shepard represents a horrific tragedy that many openly gay people go through every day. Constantly getting beaten and killed by police and religious followers who believe that it is immoral to love someone of the same sex. Members of the LGBT community have been shut down and forced to hide who they are so that they may fit the idea of the perfect American society. Even with new legislation constantly being written by Congress, these people still feel threatened to be themselves.
Matthew Shepard was lured from a college campus hangout by “Russell Arthur Henderson, 21, and Aaron James McKinney, 22” and their girlfriends “Chasity Vera Pasley, 20, and Kristen Leann Price, 18” for what was supposed to be just a simple robbery, but turned into attempted murder because of his sexual orientation. He was found chained to a fence after being beaten and lashed by his fellow college students on the night of October 12, 1998. He was found by bicycles who “mistook him for a scarecrow” and rushed him to a hospital, but “his skull was so badly smashed that doctors could not perform surgery” and he died in Colorado in Poudre Valley Hospital.
James Byrd Jr. was just another example of the hate that passes through this world without anyone taking notice. Starting in America in the early 1800’s, when slavery swept through the nation, African Americans were more oppressed than any other people during their time and had their lives were taken away before their eyes. Although the government has taken steps to help protect African Americans and prevent these tragedies, they are still persecuted in the streets of America without a second thought.
James Byrd Jr. was tortured and murdered on June 7, 1998 in Jasper, East Texas. He was chained to a “gray primer-paint pickup with paroled burglar Bill ‘Possum’ King, 23, at the wheel and Byrd dragging behind”. Two other known felons helped King with Byrd’s murder as he was chained by the ankles and dragged two miles through Piney Woods in the quiet lumber town. The town says they are not known for their racism and still commemorates Byrd’s tragedy today by putting yellow ribbons on his grave.
Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother, was one of the main supporters behind the triumph of the Matthew Shepard Act. In an article she guest wrote, she states than “October cannot go by anymore, and never will again, without us wondering what might have been” and then explains how she started the foundation to help others in the LGBT community. She started by educating herself on the LGBT community and started the Matthew Shepard Foundation so that others can be educated on the LGBT community and the hate crimes against them. With the help of other organizations, they “pushed — for a long, long time — for federal hate crime legislation that includes LGBT people” and finally got it in 2009.
Between 2008 and 2009, Congress passed a new bill that would help bring triumph to oppressed people across the United States. This bill was said to give law enforcement, from federal level to local level, the power to investigate and arrest individuals on account of a hate crime. The specific circumstance of a hate crime happens if “(1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin of any person or (2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction”.
The bill was expanded on the first Hate Crime Law in 1968, that stated it is “a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin” or “interfere with housing rights because of the victim’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”. It was later expanded on in 1988 to include the basis of the familial status of a victim, added to include the changing household dynamics of modern family in the United States. The last time it was upgraded was again in 1996 to include the Church Arson Prevention Act that made it a crime to “deface, damage, or destroy religious real property, or interfere with a person’s religious practice, in situations affecting interstate commerce”.
The bill was signed by Barack Obama and other members of the Democratic party on October 28th, 2009 in the white house. With him and the other politicians, stood the parents of Matthew Shepard, who the bill was named after. In his speech of triumph he said to the people that “You understood that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear” . It was also stated during his speech that the Hate Crime Bill was placed under a defence spending bill so that Republican representatives in Congress would be less likely to block it.
Since it’s signing in 2009, the Matthew Shepard Act has had differing responses to its effectiveness by both the Department of Justice and activists. Many activists see the results as the new law not being used to its full capacity because of the low number of cases on record for hate crimes within in the first decade. The Department of Justice sees the results as improvement in areas that are commonly known to go against the LGBT community and turn a blind eye to racism. Law enforcement agencies are also seeking to use this new legislation to turn many of these places into environments where oppressed groups are able to trust the police without fear of being victimized any more than they already are. Along with increasing punishments and drawing lines for hate crime cases, many organizations, like the New York City Anti-Violence Project, are aiming for “economic justice” by creating safe environments for members of the LGBT community where they do not have to feel threatened by living on the streets. One of the many ideas from the Director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Audacia Ray, is to provide “better housing options for marginalized LGBT people” so they no longer have to sleep on the streets and be subjects to the tragedies of anti-LGBT crimes. Effectiveness can be measured in many ways, but no hate crime law will not be truly triumphant till people will be truly free to be themselves.
Despite the overwhelming improvement in law enforcement’s efficiency due to the Matthew Shepard Act, there are still many states in the U.S. that, tragically, still do not have their own hate crime laws. The Matthew Shepard Act is a national law, but it “only applies in cases where the federal government has jurisdiction, and that state legislatures need to act as well”, not in jurisdiction of counties or cities that have their own laws. The government can create a hundred new hate crime laws, but it can only have a real effect in all of America if smaller districts seek out these crimes as hate crimes. Unfortunately there are still many people that do not consider members of the LGBT community to be valid human beings that need protection. Although there are more countries decriminalizing same sex couples, the United States is still one of the only countries in the world have had same sex marriage legalized.
Beaten. Tortured. Killed. This was the fate of two men and so many others like them that created the need for new legislation. Matthew Shepard took America by storm and created a new era for LGBT rights. Despite all the legislation put in place to protect people of color, James Byrd still had enough of an impact to create another legislation for people of color. Due to the tragic death of young men and women who happen to live differently than other people, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 was written to give a triumph to the oppressed people of America.