With extremism resurgent, will Pa. finally pass a tougher hate crimes law? | Friday Morning Coffee

January 22, 2021 7:16 am

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, speaks at a joint session to honor the Tree of Life victims. (Courtesy Pa. House Democrats)

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

In October 2019, a year after a madman went on a murderous, hate-fueled spree at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh told the Capital-Star that he couldn’t turn a blind eye to any sign of hate, the price was too dear.

Days later, with much fanfare, lawmakers in the House and Senate, surrounded by stakeholders from a constellation of advocacy groups, would roll out a hate crimes bill, saying they hoped for swift action on the legislation.

Certainly, there was reason for optimism. In April 2019, lawmakers from the state House and Senate met in joint session to memorialize the dead at Tree of Life and to swear it would never happen again. It was the first such joint session since Sept. 25, 2001, when lawmakers met to mourn the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And then nothing happened. The bills languished in committee for months. And when last year’s legislative session ended, the bills blinked out of existence.

That left their respective sponsors, Rep. Dan FrankelD-Allegheny, a Jewish lawmaker whose district includes Tree of Life, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat whose seat also includes the historic and picturesque neighborhood, to bide their time, and then reintroduce the bills in the new legislative session that began this month.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: Protesters enter the Senate Chamber on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Pro-Trump protesters have entered the U.S. Capitol building after mass demonstrations in the nation’s capital. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

So they’ve done just that. Frankel is seeking co-sponsors for his new bill. So, too, is Costa.

And if, as the poem suggests, history doesn’t repeat itself, but does, in fact, rhyme, the two Pittsburgh lawmakers are reintroducing their legislative packages against the backdrop of a nation even more divided than it was in the fall of 2018, and just weeks after anti-government extremists and die-hard supporters of ex-President Donald Trump sacked the U.S. Capitol in a failed coup d’etat.

Some of the rioters were outfitted in the symbols of hate. Notably, one wore a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. Another marched through the Capitol carrying the battle flag of the Confederacy.

“Hate Crimes have become part of American life, the new normal in our country,” Frankel wrote in his co-sponsorship memo. ” …  Our laws are a reflection of our values as Pennsylvanians, and we have a lot of work to do.”

Costa echoed the sentiment in his own memo, telling Senate colleagues that the Tree of Life killings “shone a light on the shortcomings in Pennsylvania law relating to hate crimes and ethnic intimidation. Unfortunately, the Tree of Life incident is not the first and is clearly not be the last crime committed in the Commonwealth fueled by hate.”

There’s no doubt that hate crimes are on the rise in the Keystone State. That’s backed up by both anecdote and hard data. Asian-Americans in Pennsylvania, and nationwide, reported increased harassment and intimidation as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country last year. And anti-Semitic incidents hit a historic high in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, speaks during a meeting of Pa. House Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday, 1/21/21 (Screen Capture)

The enormity of the challenge facing lawmakers in 2021, with white nationalism resurgent, was driven home during a wide-ranging meeting of the House Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday afternoon.

Over three hours, the panel heard from a civil rights advocate, a historian, two members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation who lived through the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and a law professor on the best way to combat hate, the misinformation and lies that fuel it, and the legal bright line when hate speech crosses over into action.

One of those congressional lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, was in the House galleryoverlooking the chamber, as the rioters burst into the Capitol. As the threat grew, she said, she phoned her children, “because I was afraid I might never have another opportunity.

“I tried to reassure them and told them I was going to be okay. My son said, ‘How can you tell me that? We can hear the gunshots and breaking glass.'” Wild, of Lehigh County, recounted to the committee, adding later that, “with one voice, our nation must make clear that what happened on Jan. 6 will never happen again.”

She said that will only happen by holding those behind the violence legally responsible for their actions, and by the U.S. Senate trying Trump on the impeachment article sent over by the House earlier this month.

“Every U.S. Senator should do their patriotic duty,” to fairly consider the evidence that will come before them during the trial, Wild said. “Everyone, from President Trump on down, must face the consequences.”

Shira Goodman, regional director of the ADL in Philadelphia, speaks to the Pa. House Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday, 1/21/21 (screen capture)

Shira Goodman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told lawmakers Thursday that hate starts small. Sometimes it’s an ethnic slur at a party. Then it’s racist graffiti. Then, all too often, and tragically, people end up getting hurt or killed.

“We call it the pyramid of hate to show how it escalates,” Goodman told lawmakers. “As society normalizes it, it allows for more hateful expressions of bigotry. As hateful attitudes escalate into activity, the easier it is for extremists to escalate their behavior.”

As ever, hate speech can be countered with more speech. And when it crosses the line, with legal action. But education remains critical. People have to be taught to recognize and confront hate speech when they hear it. And while that sounds simple, it’s not.

Dr. Lauren Bairnsfather, a historian with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, told lawmakers about her fight to get an anti-Semitic social media site, christened “Zyklon B” taken off line. Bairnsfather told lawmakers she was frustrated in her efforts, in large part, because the customer service representative didn’t know that Zyklon B was the name of the gas the Nazis used to execute Jews and other persecuted minorities during World War II.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 14: Members of the National Guard prepare to distribute weapons outside the U.S. Capitol on January 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. Security has been increased throughout Washington following the breach of the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, and leading up to the Presidential Inauguration. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

And while hate speech is constitutionally protected, it doesn’t always have to cross over into deeds for people to take action, Georgetown University Law Professor Frederick Lawrence told lawmakers Thursday. Hate speech can be penalized if there’s an intent to incite imminent harm,  he said.

And while courts and the Senate will ultimately hold the rioters and Trump responsible for their actions, Lawrence told lawmakers Thursday that they need to hold themselves to a higher standard, and to speak out loud and clear when one of their own crosses the line, as some Pennsylvania legislative and congressional Republicans did, in the days leading up to the violence at the Capitol that left five people dead.

“When people violate their oath” to defend the state and federal constitutions, “that may not be criminal, but that’s not to say it’s praiseworthy or acceptable,” Lawrence, a former federal prosecutor, told the House panel.

In this dark winter, Pennsylvania lawmakers find themselves challenged, as they did two years ago, to match deeds to high flown rhetoric.

To borrow from another poem, first they came for the Tree of Life. And they did nothing. Then they came for the Asian-Americans. And they did nothing. Then they came for the transgender Philadelphians. And they did nothing.

Then they came for the U.S. Capitol and state Capitol … and they did …

Lawmakers have it in their power, right now, to write a different ending. They can’t fail again.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas
managed to annoy the entire city of Pittsburgh this week with one, profoundly dumb and oh-so-Trumpy tweet. Our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper explain.

In one of his first acts in office, President Joe Biden is sending Congress a bill providing a path to citizenship for 11 million people, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa reports.

On our Commentary Page this morning, WITF-FM alum Ben Pontz finds reason to be encouraged in the smooth hand-offs at the Office of Auditor General and the Office of Open Records. And Jay Bookman, of our sibling site, the Georgia Recorderroasts congressional Republicans who are only now finding their voices to speak out against weeks of GOP misinformation on the election and Donald Trump‘s role in fomenting it.

En la Estrella-CapitalPa. amplia la distribución de la vacuna del COVID-19 a más personas. Y el Presidente Joe Biden nombra a la Secretaria de Salud Levine para el puesto federal.

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar on October 27, 2020 | Source: Commonwealth Media Services

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar called for an end to election misinformation as a Republican-controlled state House panel kicked off a battery of hearings on the 2020 election, Spotlight PA reports (via the Inquirer).
Protesters picketed the home of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto over a ‘radical’ tweet, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive looks at the factors that led President Joe Biden to pick state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine for a cabinet-level post.
The Citizens-Voice looks at how Luzerne County healthcare facilities are adjusting to new COVID-19 vaccine guidelines.
Pharmacies in Washington County are being flooded with requests for the vaccine, the Observer-Reporter reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:


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A post shared by Joel DeSerio (@joel_deserio)

WHYY-FM has what you need to know about Philly’s vaccine sign-up program.
The Biden administration wants to extend the moratorium on student loan payments through September, WESA-FM reports.
New Census estimates show population declines in 16 states, reports.
The Harrisburg woman accused of stealing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop has been placed in home confinement as her case moves through the courts, the York Daily Record reports.
Politico profiles the 36-year working relationship between President Joe Biden and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to longtime reader, Tom Flynn, who celebrates today. Congrats and enjoy the day, sir.

Heavy Rotation.
We’ll go out this week with what, arguably, may be The Killers’ finest single. From their debut ‘Hot Fuss,’ here’s ‘All These Things That I’ve Done.’ Go ahead, sing along with the choir part in the middle, you know you want to. The dog won’t judge.

Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Winnipeg kept a clean sheet against Ottawa until the third period on Thursday night, when the Sens’ Chris Tierney finally got his team on the board. Nonetheless, the Jets left Canadian Tire Center with a 4-1 win.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.