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Ahmaud Arbery shooting renews calls for Georgia hate crime law

Georgia is one of four states in the U.S. that doesn't have one, though a bill is pending.

ATLANTA — The arrests of two white men for fatally attacking an African American jogger in Brunswick are renewing calls for a state hate crimes law.  Georgia is one of four states in the country without such a law – although a bill is pending.  

Georgia passed a hate crimes law 20 years ago that the courts ruled as unconstitutionally vague. The law went away, but not the issue.

Five years ago, the crime was in Douglas County.  It was a noisy group of Confederate flag enthusiasts who decided to buzz the birthday party of an African American child. They’d done similar stuff repeatedly in the summer of 2015.

When two of the ringleaders went to court, they were convicted under a street gang statute because Georgia had no hate crimes law – and still doesn’t.

In 2019, the crime was a spray-painted swastika at Centennial High School. With still no hate crime law on the books, police investigated as an act of vandalism.

The struggle to enact and retain a hate crimes law in Georgia has gone on for more than twenty years.  Georgia is one of four states without a hate crimes law. The bill pending in Georgia would target crimes involving race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender and disability.

"The problem with a list is you're always going to have somebody that’s left off a list, right?" asked state Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) during a House judiciary hearing on February 28, 2019. 

In Georgia, conservatives have stifled hate crime bills because, they say, the punishment should fit the crime and not necessarily the thought behind it. 

"We’d do well to not punish thought," added Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) during the same hearing. "A heinous act should be punished for the act itself."

The hate crimes bill nonetheless got a lot of love in the Georgia House chamber during a late evening session a few days later. 

"No one - and I mean no one - has the right to commit a hate crime and walk away to talk about it. No one!" said Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) during the floor debate March 7. Smyre is Georgia's longest-serving legislator.

And when it passed with a bipartisan vote, the chamber erupted in applause, with the emotion of a hard-fought battle nearly won.

But the hate crimes bill that passed the House that night has never gotten even a committee hearing in the Republican-led Senate.

Hours after arrests were announced in the Brunswick case, Rep. Smyre issued a statement pleading with senators to pass the bill when the legislature reconvenes later this spring.   

"Now is the time for our state to assert with one voice that crimes of violence and prejudice against our neighbors will be classified and condemned for what they are: hate crimes,” Smyre said in a statement. 

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