Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 16th 2019


Hate Crime Tutorial

By Jeremy Morrison

One question was asked over and over again—“How many people think this is a hate crime?”

It’s a question that Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Robert Schwinger spent a lot of time on, circling around and studying it from every possible angle, teasing out legalities and theorizing potential particulars in search of variances.

“So, what is a hate crime?” Schwinger asked. “Let’s start with that.”

Schwinger works out of the FBI’s Jacksonville offices. He focuses on civil rights-related cases and was in Pensacola for a June 25 forum at Zion Hope Primitive Baptist Church called “Investigating Hate Crimes: Your Questions Answered.”

On a screen set up in the front of the church’s auditorium, Schwinger projected various images as well as word-problem styled scenarios, asking the audience if each constituted a hate crime.

“You’ve got members of the Klan with an old Confederate flag,” he said, referring to an image of the screen. “That’s offensive to most people in this country now, but that’s protected speech.”

The agent then changed the photo to one of a letter written to Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. The note, written in large, capitalized block-style letters, reads in part, “WE ARE GOING TO KILL YOU IF YOU ATTEMPT TO ENTER A BALLGAME AT CROSLEY FIELD.”

“So, this is the Jackie Robinson letter,” Schwinger said, giving the audience a moment to absorb the note. “This is obviously a hate crime. This is a textbook example of a hate crime or a true threat.”

But what about graffiti on a house depicting a swastika and the words “Die Jews?” What if it were just the swastika, without the words? What if Jews actually lived in the house? What if the house were empty?

And how about the young white man who punches an old black man while also yelling racist slurs, then posts a video of the event on social media as part of the “knock out challenge?” What about a giant peace symbol spray painted on a synagogue?

“This is a pig’s head that was thrown up against a mosque,” Schwinger explained the next slide.

Throughout the local forum, the FBI agent familiarized attendees with the specifics of hate crime-related federal statues and explained what types of acts were covered under such statutes. This pig’s head, for example, does not meet the criteria of a hate crime even though it appears, as Schwinger said, “extremely offensive.”

“However,” the agent explained, pointing out the reason the act fell outside the hate crime parameters, “there is no permanent damage to this building. It is essentially littering. It’s throwing garbage at this building.”

How Hate Crime Law Has Evolved
The investigation of hate crimes is considered a top priority within the FBI’s Civil Rights Program. The agency investigates hundreds of hate crimes each year.

Legally speaking, a hate crime is defined as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated by the individual’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic/national origin, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.” The defining parameters are laid out in a series of federal statutes.

Agent Schwinger explained that while the FBI’s foray into civil rights territory began with the investigation of the 1964 murders of three young men working to register black voters in Mississippi, the agency’s pursual of hate crimes—or even such a legal designation—came later.

While some aspects of the U.S’s hate crime legislation date back, and are contained within, the  Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the country’s laws legally defining such offenses have continued to evolve over the years to accommodate greater protections.

During the Pensacola forum, a couple of landmark cases from 1998, as well as the new legislation resulting from them, were offered up for consideration. The first case was the murder of James Byrd, Jr., and the second was the murder of Matthew Shepard.

“Many of you may remember these cases,” Schwinger noted.

The cases, in fact, are difficult to forget, each brutally horrific enough to stain the collective national consciousness and each also jarring enough to inspire more thorough hate crime legislation.

In June of 1998, three white men in Jasper, Texas, chained Byrd, an African American, to the back of a pickup truck. The men dragged Byrd for a few miles along an asphalt road until he hit a culvert and was decapitated.

“They dropped his torso in an African American cemetery nearby,” said Schwinger, “and then these guys went to a barbecue and drank beer and had a good time.”

While Byrd’s murder did spur a state hate crime law in Texas, there was no federal civil rights law that covered the murder. Ordinarily, the act would have been deemed a hate crime based on its racial component, but because the incident occurred on private property (whereas the statutes stipulated the crime must have been committed on public property) it was not covered.

A few months after Byrd’s murder, in October, Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was beaten, tortured and left for dead outside Laramie.

“They hung him on a fence post, basically left to bleed to death,” Schwinger said.

Shepard’s killers were prosecuted and convicted under state law. At the time, federal hate crime legislation did not address sexual orientation.

The grisly nature of the crime in Wyoming, and the fact that it appeared that Shepard may have been targeted due to his sexuality, drew national attention. It also generated a fair amount of critique that such a crime wouldn’t be viewed as a hate crime.

“There was an outcry,” Schwinger recalled.

It took a while, but in October of 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed. The act expands the parameters of hate crime legislation to include a victim’s sexual orientation or identity.

How to Respond During an Active Shooter Event
In addition to offering a primer on hate crimes, the FBI forum also featured a presentation regarding active shooter events. With such events becoming all too common—in schools or offices or other public spaces—the agents in attendance stressed it was a good idea to know how best to react under such circumstances.

“This is clearly a problem that is out of control in this country,” Schwinger said. “Politics aside, this is a problem we’ve got to deal with.”

The nuts-and-bolts takeaway from the FBI active-shooter presentation was, “Run. Hide. Fight.” In that order.

In a worst-case scenario, attendees were instructed that if escape or hiding is not an option, people should try to take out the gunman.

“Commit to taking the shooter down no matter what,” Schwinger said.

During a question-and-answer session, Schwinger was asked what he thought of a recent Florida law—the first of its kind in the nation—that allows for teachers to carry guns. The special agent said he thought arming teachers could be problematic, particularly when authorities responding to an event are expected to differentiate between armed teachers and the shooter.

“What confusion would that cause in an active shooter situation?” he said. “I think that’s a bad idea.”