As we speak the government is reviewing a policy consultation on proposed changes to hate crime legislation. This will take place until the 27th September. Currently higher sentencing for this crime is only enforced if it is committed on the basis of religion and race. Changes would mean that enhanced sentencing would be extended to cover offences involving transgender identity, sexual orientation and disability.
On Monday the 9th September I was given the opportunity to attend a workshop organised by the 99% campaign. This was related to the ongoing public consultation, itself in response to reported increases in hate crime. In attendance were local Liberal Democrat councillor Wilma Nelson and Richard Walker, Chair of Speaking Up Southwalk. Listening to the experiences of Wilma Nelson her racial identity seemed to be an inspirational source of strength more than anything else. She explained that she used her identity in the past to question and confront people’s existing misconceptions, and to combat a wider fear of the unknown. She did not accept the identity assigned to her when she first moved into her area, the ‘n.3’, or the fear of some existing residents that lead them to intimidate her.
As a younger generation we have an almost unique power to vote and change the future situation in regard to hate crime. People, therefore, may not have to fear walking down the street because of their skin colour, the clothes they wear, their age or disability. Yes, the situation, as she reminded us, is not as bad as 30 years ago but progress can and must still be made. It always exist underneath the surface. Indeed a 2011 Scope report claimed there has been an increase in the hostility disabled people face. Recently, Mencap, have called for incoming police and crime commissioners to make hate crime a priority as the Olympic games has not created lasting goodwill to the desired extent. Unfortunately there is an narrative, created by some tabloids, that people with disability are all ‘benefit scroungers’ that is not easy to erode.
Richard Walker, shared a similar feeling of simply being a number. Indeed such a bureaucratic attitude seems a logical reason why the abuse of disabled people such as himself went on for so long, before society recognised it was actually happening.
Out of my experience of attending the workshop I most enjoyed debating with fellow young people the fundamentals of hate crime and what it meant to us as a group. One of the words that first came to my mind was misconception, which other attendees suitably related to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Another significant aspect was power; power over someone else, the victim’s lack of power or a false power created by someones fear of the unknown. Both power and misconception can lead to discrimination and abuse.
After this we considered changes in the law in the context of a hypothetical crime. Asked if the hate crime element of an offence should remain on an offender’s record my feelings were that this measure should be combined with an additional focus on education. We all agreed that the proposed measure was right but not sufficient on its own.
It seems fitting that on the recent anniversary of 9/11 I engaged with the issue of hate crime just two days earlier. As a defining event of the 21st century 9/11 has inevitably created a series of prejudices against the majority of muslims, shared by a significant amount of those in western countries such as ours. The lesson here and with hate crime is that individuals shouldn’t engage with other people through generalised misconceptions caused by fear. You never know, they might be as an inspiring individual as Wilma Nelson.