News Analysis: What is a hate crime?

Eight swastikas. Three locations. Eight days.

For the second time in three weeks, Foggy Bottom is steeped in racial tension as the symbol of Nazism has appeared on two undergraduates’ doors and a fence near the GW Hospital.

At GW, a school that is about 30 percent Jewish, furor over the symbols has been palpable and the perpetrator is still at large. But until the investigation shows the intent of the vandalism, the University cannot label the incident as a “hate crime.”

It is the semantics of a D.C. law that is precluding the University Police Department from extending the classification of the vandalism to a hate-related crime. The D.C. Bias-Related Crime Act of 1989 requires investigators to determine someone’s intent before branding an incident as a hate crime, said Charles Barber, an attorney in GW’s Office of the General Counsel.

UPD is investigating and the Metropolitan Police Department is not involved, University President Steven Knapp said in an interview with The Hatchet Wednesday. He said revealing details about the investigation could damage the efforts and declined on several occasions to do so.

But at Columbia University Wednesday, a swastika was spray painted on the door of a professor and now the New York Police Department is investigating.

“Clearly this action is a serious hate crime, and just as clearly (Teacher’s College) and its faculty members are the focus of a malicious campaign to cause fear,” wrote the graduate school’s President Susan Fuhrman and Provost Tom James in an e-mail to students Wednesday.

Mark Potok, a civil rights expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, Ala., said the University should contact MPD. But Knapp insisted UPD is capable and vested with the power to investigate.

David Friedman, a spokesperson from the D.C. chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said that by not providing investigation updates to the University, it could perpetuate the feeling of angst – one that transparency could easily fix.

“They are clearly being very careful for some reason,” Friedman said. “It may be that they’re very cautious, reading the law very narrowly, listening to legal counsel or maybe they know more than they’re saying.”

Sarah Marshak, the freshman who has seen five swastikas appear on her door in the past week, said she is also in the dark about UPD’s efforts. Although they have picked her brain about possible suspects, she said investigators have told her little else.

“I would like to see a few cameras in my hall,” said Marshak, who is also a Hatchet reporter.

Julie Fernandes, the senior council at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said this incident is a clear-cut example of a hate crime.

“They should say something publicly about (the investigation),” said Fernandes, “If it were me at GW, I would ask ‘What are we not doing right? Why are people using swastikas?'”

Even if intent is not determined, the incident would likely be considered vandalism – typically a misdemeanor in the District.

Knapp will speak at Hillel’s Sabbath dinner Friday. Rob Fishman, the organization’s director, said he is alarmed by the virulent bigotry in the last month – including the satirical anti-Muslim fliers that were posted three weeks ago, swastikas that were drawn this week and a church on Virginia Avenue that was almost set ablaze.

“These are all acts of bigotry of some sort. These are all hate crimes,” Fishman said Wednesday. “They are all within four blocks of campus. Something needs to be investigated more fully. This seems to be spreading into a community.”

He added, “The student body isn’t scared. If we can overlook this, this is kind of scary to me.”

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