The Difficulty of Counting Hate Crimes
When Oregon adopted its statewide Hate Crimes Reporting Act in 1989, it was a big deal that it included crimes based on sexual orientation prejudice. Such recognition still doesn’t exist in a number of states and U.S. territories, though federal hate crime law was expanded to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability in 2009 through the Matthew Shepard and James Bryd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act. (The Oregon legislature clarified that gender identity is a separate protected class in 2019 and went further in 2021 to add gender identity to all state nondiscrimination statutes.)
Jeannette Pai-Espinosa was director of Portland’s Metropolitan Human Relations Commission at the time of the state law’s adoption. By 1992 she was working for Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts, an outspoken LGBTQ ally. In that capacity Jeannette served as the Governor’s representative to and chair of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment (NWCAMH), an organization that convened governmental and non-governmental entities on the local, state, and regional level to address bias-based violence. Eric K. Ward, who spent eight years as NWCAMH field organizer (resulting in 120 community-based interdisciplinary task forces in six states) for the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, recalls a significant debate within the anti-bigotry community regarding inclusion of homophobic violence in their scope of concern.
Eric and Jeannette both remember the significance of NWCAMH holding their regional conference in Eugene, Oregon as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ community as it came under attack from the OCA. Jeannette officially represented Governor Roberts at the conference and at No on 9 events as a high-level validation of the importance of a united front against homophobic propaganda, public policy, and violence. Jeannette and the Governor made it a priority to get other governors on board with hate crime reporting laws that were more expansive than the federal law, which wouldn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity bias for another 17 years.
Legal recognition of homophobic violence stood to be one of the casualties of Ballot Measure 9, if passed. As The Oregonian pointed out in its No on 9 editorial series, referring to the appalling number of violent acts that had taken place, “if Measure 9 were in effect, the Oregon hate-crime law could not be applied to them. Oregon’s shield against gay-bashing would be struck down because the state could not recognize any category such as ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘sexual preference.’”
Longtime civil rights organizer and No on 9 campaign leader Scot Nakagawa says, looking back on the newspaper accounts of hate crimes during the campaign, “the media in that period was much clearer on the point of violence than it is today.”
But even though violence based on anti-LGBTQ prejudice “qualified” as hate crimes during the campaign, there was the matter of reporting, and then of prosecution.
Jeannette remembers that when she led Portland’s Metropolitan Human Relations Commission (MHRC), “We produced the first hate crimes report in the country after the state Hate Crime Act’s passage. We worked extensively with Portland Police and the Lesbian Community Project and others to ensure we could collect anecdotal data on hate crimes to provide a more complete picture of ‘official’ reports of hate crimes based on sexual orientation.” (Jeannette had an original copy of that report until about five years ago; “little did we know,” she says about discarding it, how relevant that document would become.)
Four months after Measure 9 was defeated, The Oregonian ran an article titled “Anti-Gay Incidents Increase Before Vote” (March 12, 1993) that referenced the supplemental community organizing, monitoring, and support needed to respond adequately.
“Portland-area gays were subjected to increased assaults and harassment in the weeks before Measure 9 went to a vote, a group that runs a private telephone bias crime reporting line said Thursday. The report from the Anti-Violence Project of the Lesbian Community Project is part of a national study on local trends in violence directed against the homosexual community and appears to suggest the problem is of epidemic proportions in Portland.
“The report is not an official listing of incidents reported to police but is instead an analysis of the number of calls received by the group’s telephone hot line, which fielded calls from people who said they were victims of anti-gay incidents.
“In fact, almost half of those who called the hot line said they never reported their incidents to police. Many of the incidents they reported, such as the use of offensive language, wouldn’t constitute crimes in any event.”
The difficulty of relying on police reports was highlighted in a later retrospective by The Oregonian (“Hate Crimes Fall, But Only on Paper,” October 4, 1998):
“Crimes motivated by hatred have declined dramatically in Oregon since the state began to record them nine years ago, but those familiar with the statistics aren’t cheering. The decline has been distorted by police agencies – some clearly confused by the definition of hate crimes – that have failed to file reports on them with the state, said Jeff Bock, supervisor of the Oregon Uniform Crime Reporting program.”The Oregonian, Oct. 4, 1998)
“State records show that hate crimes have dropped from a high of 545 in 1992 to a low of 108 last year. But that decline has been exaggerated by uneven reporting during the life of the nine-year program, Bock said.”
I asked Scot to reflect on this dynamic: “Back then, the media relied heavily on the police for data on violence and police reports weren’t entirely reliable,” Scot says, going on to detail some of the inherent bias in law enforcement data. “For instance, the police reported that white people were the most likely victims of hate violence by a very big margin, suggesting that groups advocating for minority communities were exaggerating their vulnerability. But those ‘white’ statistics did not account for LGBTQ people and Jews or adjust for proportionality. If you weighted the data by representation in the population, Black people of that period were ten times more likely to be victimized by hate violence. The incidents they experienced were both more arbitrary and racially targeted in the sense that the white assailant often didn’t have a personal relationship with the Black victim; with cases in which a Black person victimized a white person, there was usually a personal relationship context.”
Further addressing the systemic and political nature of violence targeting oppressed communities, Scot says: “The largely impersonal nature of white-on-Black hate incidents made them much more likely to be politically motivated – or at least gave those incidents a powerfully antidemocracy political meaning. Especially when enforcement was so uneven, incidents of police violence on Black and LGBTQ people in the cities, and Native Americans and Latinx immigrants outside of those cities, were common enough to drive fear in those communities.”
The built-in bias of the criminal justice system was often ignored or dismissed when it came to pushing for tougher criminal punishment for anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. Scot reflects, “The violence of that period was one of the key dynamics that ended up causing many of us to assimilate to authoritarianism, jumping on the bandwagon for hate crimes penalty enhancements, for instance.” (Read more about these implications in Story 9: Murders in Salem.)
For more analysis, see our Addendum on The Interplay of Mainstream & Political Violence.
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.