Law enforcement officials and community advocates were among those who gathered Oct. 20 at UIC Student Center East, 750 S. Halsted St., for a hate-crime summit held in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
While there has not been a significant increase in the number of reported hate crimes in Chicago, the community has to be vigilant about them, said Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who added, "You can never perceive any individual hate crime as a crime against any one community or victim. … These fears and feelings of intimidation may prevent [other] members of a particular community from enjoying the rights that are promised to you all."
"These are the people we serve and close-up touch," said Mona Noriega, chair of the Chicago Commision on Human Relations, who hosted the event along with Tyrone Forman, UIC Vice Provost for Diversity. "We witness the blood that pours from their wounds. Walk with them, trembling when they enter into a court of law to hold their abusers accountable. We experience the tears that family and community cry. We realize the multiple ways that hate crimes destroy lives, kill real people, and create fear among strangers. We have no choice."
Across the city the LGBT and Jewish communities face the largest number of direct threats, according to Michael Masters, executive director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Cook County. He told the audience that better education about hate crimes, both for law enforcement and members of the community was needed.
"The reality is that, if people are feeling targeted because of who they are, we cannot take a moment of rest," said Masters. "Through strong training and good partnerships we can increase the chances that individuals feel comfortable reporting incidents, and, critically, that law enforcement both has empathy when issues of concern arise in particular communities, and undertakes appropriate followup when issues are reported."
Getting victims to report the crimes committed against them remains a challenge. "If we wait to make sure that there's a problem before we address it, its too late," said Vick Lombardo of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "The more we educate in advance, the better off we're going to be."
Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh Legal Defense and Education Fund, spoke about the myriad challenges Sikh Americans have faced in the wake of 9/11, and noted that they have been disproportionately affected by hate crimes, racial profiling, bullying, discrimination and failures to make public accommodations.
"Many members of our community who do wear their articles of faith are walking around with a target on their back," he said. "… It's not an issue of misconception. It's an issue of 'no conception.' One in five individuals felt apprehension or anger when they saw a picture of a Sihk American male."
Sherialyn K. Birdsong, whose husband, insurance executive and Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Birdsong, was slain in an anti-African American hate crime in Skokie in 1999, spoke of how much her late husband meant to her family.
"He was a great friend. My best friend. A wonderful husband [and] he was an exceptional father. When he came home the kids acted like I didn't exist. We were living the American dream in Skokie," she said.
Birdsong now works as a teacher in Georgia, and said that she tries to instill in her students values that promote tolerance for others.
"Everyone who commits a hate crime was once a student," Birdsong said. "We have common core standards, but …How do we do a better job teaching the kid, 'stop bullying this person, stop saying bad things about them because they are different?'"
Messages about tolerance and acceptance, she added, "need to come in powerful waves."
A number of breakout sessions were also held at the summit; topics included models of affirmative community based responses, resources for hate-crime survivors, hate crimes against religious institutions and law enforcement responses to hate crimes.
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