Urban League Launches Campaign to Pass Hate Crimes Legislation

Participants are urging Arkansas legislators to approve a law before May.

Arkansas is one of only three states without hate crimes legislation and the Urban League of the State Arkansas says that needs to change.

“The recent hate-based attack in Hot Springs, Ark. by a Bentonville fire captain is a wake up call that the time to bring hate crimes legislation to Arkansas is now,” USLA president and CEO Scott Hamilton said. “Arkansas needs enhanced hate crime legislation that protects all Arkansans, not some.”

ULSA and its partners formally announced the formation of its new Arkansas United Against Hate campaign during a press conference yesterday on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. In addition to passing hate crimes legislation during the 93rd General Assembly, goals of the #ARUnitedAgainstHate campaign include enhanced training for law enforcement personnel on hate crime identification, response and reporting; improved data collection and reporting; and increased community awareness and reporting. 

Joining USLA in this new initiative are organizations from around the state including Arkansas United, Asian American and Pacific Islanders Democratic Caucus, Human Rights Campaign of Arkansas, Second Baptist Church (Social Action Ministry), Little Rock Branch of the NAACP, Stonewall Caucus and Arkansas Black Mayors Association. 

“This is not just something that is stored in the recesses of our minds, this is a reality for us — that we live day to day among others who may not value us as citizens,” said Julian Lott, Camden mayor and ABMA president. 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has urged the passage of hate crimes legislation throughout the first three months of the legislative session, but there has been little visible progress. Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, filed a hate crimes bill with Rep. Fred Love, D-Mabelvale, as a co-sponsor in Nov. 2020. However, Senate Bill 3 has yet to be presented in committee. 

During yesterday’s press conference, Love reiterated the need for a hate crime law in Arkansas.

“Make no mistake, hate crime legislation cannot stop the hate in the hearts of people, only God can do that,” Love said. “However, if we have the opportunity to deter people from acting on that hate, I think it is imperative we use the means of legislation to ensure the blessings of liberty.”

One reason hate crimes legislation has stalled in the legislature, Hamilton said, is because there’s some pushback about including members of the LGBTQ community in the law. 

“But we believe that’s absolutely imperative because no one should ever be the target of violence based on something that is personal to them,” Hamilton said.

Through the #ARUnitedAgainstHate campaign, Hamilton said advocates want to increase public awareness of the issue in hopes of getting legislation passed this session. Lawmakers need to continue hearing different voices from around the state because sometimes legislation such as this is decided in a vacuum, Hamilton said.

“We think it’s very important that we create a pathway for people to get their voices out,” he said. “So our goal is simply to be a mediator to get information to and from those that are in that decision-making pipeline.”

Thursday morning, prior to the Urban League’s midday press conference, a group of Republican legislators filed SB 622, which would require offenders involved in an “aggravating circumstance” to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence. The bill defines “aggravating circumstance” as an instance when a defendant purposefully selected a victim because they were a member of or associated with a “recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political or religious beliefs or characteristics.”

Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which he discussed during a weekly press conference with reporters yesterday. He refereed to SB 266 as a class protection bill and said it is “much broader and much more substantive than many of these so-called hate crimes bills across the country,” Shepherd said.

“To my knowledge it covers virtually every group that has been protected in any other hate crime law in the United States,” he said.

Mireya Reith, founder and executive director of Arkansas United, is concerned “specified classes and vulnerable populations are not listed in a way that would ensure accountability.” Reith also expressed disappointment there was not a transparent and inclusive process in the creation of the bill. 

While working on the legislation, Rep. Shepherd said he primarily had conversations with legislators on an individual basis. He also said they kept the wording of the bill fairly private until the legislation was filed yesterday. Reith said she’s concerned vulnerable communities were not included in the drafting of SB 266.

“If we’re going to have this conversation, then let’s do so in a way that includes the communities that would be impacted and make sure that’s meaningful for them,” she said.

Shepherd anticipates criticism of the bill and that conversations about the legislation will continue. Reith wants impacted groups to be part of those conversations and expects her organization to reach out to lawmakers next week.

The current legislative session has been extended until April 30. The General Assembly will then take an extended recess. Typically the session would adjourn at this time, but lawmakers will need to reconvene later in the year to work on redistricting efforts.  

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.