by Kheven LaGrone
California Penal Code 422.55 defines “hate crime” as a criminal act committed, in whole or in part, because of the victim’s disability, gender, nationality, race/ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. There are multiple state hate crime laws that provide enhanced penalties for violating the rights of people in one of those protected groups.
Recently, acts of violence against homeless people have been caught on tape and are circulating in the media. They show that cities like San Francisco and Oakland should enact their own local laws adding homeless citizens to the list of protected groups. This would give homeless people the protection of hate crime laws.
The homeless are not currently a protected group, perhaps, in part, because of the ways many people perceive them and their possessions. Some even believe that harassing a homeless person is justified.
They associate homelessness with crime and therefore argue that their basic rights should not be protected. They dismiss their possessions as trash that needs to be cleaned up and removed. They believe that homeless people are lazy and don’t want to work, so they deserve whatever happens to them for sleeping outside. They demand the city “clean up” — or eradicate — homeless encampments.
These beliefs can become excuses for harming homeless people. For example, as more people moved into Oakland in recent years, many longtime residents were displaced, became homeless and “camped” at Lake Merritt.
In June 2018, a man nicknamed “Jogger Joe” was videotaped throwing a homeless man’s possessions into Lake Merritt and the trash. He told the cameraman that he was “cleaning up” the lake. Jogger Joe seemed to think that by dehumanizing the homeless man, he was performing a good service for the community. He even invited people to join him.
As the cameraman interviewed him, Jogger Joe responded as if he was to be applauded. Suddenly, he realized the questions were criticizing him. He seemed confused and stopped the interview. He later stole the cell phone that was used to record his interview.
If homeless people had been protected by hate crime laws, Jogger Joe could have been arrested for violating California Penal Code 422.6 which prohibits damaging or destroying a protected person’s property. If Jogger Joe had been charged with a hate crime, that would have sent a message to the community that such violence would not be tolerated.
Instead, he was arrested for stealing the phone that was used to record him. His homeless victim was not entitled to protection and the monetary damages California law provides for hate crime victims.
In fact, comments on the Internet show that many people think like Jogger Joe. He was right to think that he would be applauded, and not arrested for a hate crime. Some comments called him a hero. “Good for him,” one respondent wrote. Someone else wrote, “the man should be lauded.” Another wrote, “Give the man the citizen of the year award.”
As homelessness has become more visible, people living on the streets in cities across the nation have been increasingly targeted for bullying and harassment, violent assaults and even murders. Will more homeless citizens be in danger of attacks and other hate crimes as poverty increases?
Around the same time as the release of the Jogger Joe tapes, a video was released showing a well-dressed man in San Francisco walking up to a sleeping homeless person and kicking him twice in the face. The man then walked away. The homeless person suffered serious injuries.
Some argue that homeless people do not need special protection because they are not being targeted; they are simply easy prey. They believe that current laws already protect the homeless. The video recordings of homeless people being abused show that current state laws are not sufficient to protect homeless citizens from violence aimed specifically at them because they are homeless.
The enactment of local hate crime laws would show that a city cares about its homeless population enough to try to protect them. This could discourage violence against them. Local hate crime laws might have deterred Jogger Joe.
He might have known that Oakland valued its homeless citizens as well as anyone else; he would have assumed that Oakland did not tolerate violating its homeless citizens. Perhaps, his homeless victim could have qualified for the monetary relief that the state provides to victims of hate crimes.