A terrible incident that occurred in York County in late April – an unprovoked attack on an African-American, allegedly by two white males – was a reminder that racism is alive and well.

The two men are accused of violating the Maine Civil Rights Act, which was enacted in 1992. This law prohibits the use or threat of violence or damage to property against a person based on that person’s race, color, religion, sex, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation. A person who is found in violation of the law is convicted of a Class D crime. In Maine, a Class D crime is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

When I learned that this crime is only a misdemeanor in Maine, I was shocked. If these two individuals are convicted, it’s essentially a slap on the wrist, and they can go home for violating the constitutional rights of a person solely based on the color of their skin. The punishment does not fit the crime. I propose the classification for a hate crime should increase to a Class B crime, which, under Maine law, is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. When the Legislature returns in December, I plan on taking action by having a constituent bill introduced, calling for the law to be changed to a Class B crime.

Connecticut is providing Maine – and the rest of the country – an example to follow, passing a law last year that increases the punishment for a hate crime from a misdemeanor to a felony and making a first-degree hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.

It’s also instructive to look at other New England states’ hate-crime laws. In Vermont, criminal charges motivated by bias bring enhanced penalties: between one more year and five more years in prison with increasing fines. In Massachusetts, a person convicted of a hate crime can serve a misdemeanor penalty of up to 2½ years in prison and a $5,000 fine. However, if bodily injury results, the penalties increase to felony level: a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The accusations against the two individuals in York County do not accurately represent the state of Maine. I know this for a fact. As an African-American who lives in an overwhelmingly white state, I have felt nothing but warmth and acceptance. But this is not the case for everyone who is not white, or speaks a different language, or loves another person of the same gender.

In 2016, Maine had a rate of 3 reported hate crimes per 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics, while the national average was 2.1. What’s more, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, Maine is one of just eight states where hate incident rates spiked in the 10 days after President Trump’s election, compared to the average annual rate between 2010 and 2015. These data highlight a problem that needs to be mitigated and a need for stronger penalties for those who commit despicable actions based on prejudice and hatred.

My motivation to change this law is not because the victim was an African-American and the alleged suspects were white. I believe that no other person should target, harass and/or assault another person because of something that makes them different. No one has the right to do that to anyone.

I have been an advocate for equality in my own way by seeking to use the law and change policies. As an undergraduate, I drafted and proposed a student bill of rights; in graduate school, I became an ally for the LGTBQ+ community by becoming a SAFE trainer. Participants in Students, Staff and Faculty for Equality training provide education and awareness on various topics that affect the LGTBQ+ community. I also witnessed growing up what racism and bigotry can do to someone, years after it happened, i.e., my father, who was born in the 1940s and came of age during the 1960s and lived with the scars of what happened to him until he died in 2015.

Maine is a welcoming state, but it also needs to show that when racism, bigotry and hatred attempt to rear their ugly heads, they will not be tolerated, and that those who interfere with a person’s civil rights will be held accountable and severely punished.


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