More than four years after a white supremacist opened fire on a historically black church in South Carolina, lawmakers there are now pointing to recent anti-Semitic attacks in New York and New Jersey to argue that the state needs its first law targeting hate crimes.
South Carolina is one of only four states in the US that has no hate crime statutes, even after nine people were murdered at Emanuel AME in the summer of 2015. Since then, white supremacists have become more open about their views; violent hate crimes have been on the rise.
Advocates for the black and Jewish communities came together alongside politicians in the hopes they can apply enough pressure to pass this bill — unlike several similar measures that have been introduced and died in the past two decades.
“So what we’re looking to do now … is to bridge that gap of unity between the African American community and the Jewish community to fight something that is so prevalent today, Perry Bradley, an organizer with Building Better Communities, which aims to bring together law enforcement with local communities, said during a rally on Monday.
State Rep. Beth Bernstein, a Democrat, prefiled the bill after working on it for more than a year. She tweeted on Monday to urge lawmakers that “the time is now to enact” it. She’s the Jewish member of the state’s General Assembly, she told BuzzFeed News.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic,” Bernstein told BuzzFeed News about the bill passing. “I think because of what [hate crimes] we continue to see most recently and what we saw in Texas. And the hate crimes in New York and New Jersey. It’s more pressing and it’s hopefully on people’s minds more.”
Arkansas, Georgia, and Wyoming also have no hate crime statutes, according to the Justice Department, though experts argue that even in states with hate crime laws, protections vary from group to group.
“We are without excuse,” said state Rep. Ivory Thigpen, a Democrat, in front of the South Carolina State House Monday. “When we harbor hate groups, when we see the incidents of hate crimes on the rise, it is irresponsible for us as legislators not to pass laws that ultimately protect all the people of South Carolina.”
In November of last year, lawmakers filed a bipartisan bill that could lengthen prison sentences by up to five years and boost fines by $10,000 for crimes that targeted victims based on their “race, color, creed, religion, gender, age, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.”
Opponents of the bill have voiced concerns about the laws being discriminatory in themselves.
"Any crime of violence, in my view, is a hate crime," state Sen. Greg Hembree told WPDE. Hembree did not respond to a request for comment. "You shot someone because they were a rival drug dealer, or you shot somebody because they were a Baptist — I mean, really, it’s murder.”
"It’s picking at victims and saying, ‘Well, you know, because you’re being harassed, for this reason, you get more protection than that one.’ I mean, it’s discrimination in nature," he told the news outlet. "People should be protected equally under the law and not picking out favorites.”
Still, it’s uncertain if lawmakers will ultimately get enough support to pass the bill.
“There are so many situations that we can call upon where hate has plagued our state. Not the country but our state,” said Perry Bradley, an organizer with Building Better Communities, which aims to bring together law enforcement with local communities on Monday. “So what we’re looking to do now [...] is to bridge that gap of unity between the African American community and the Jewish community to fight something that is so prevalent today.”
The Charleston church shooter professed to hate black people was charged with 33 federal hate crime charges and sentenced to death. Churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship have beefed up their security as a response to the shooting in 2015 and the continuous headlines of religiously motivated attacks across the country.
Rabbi Hesh Epstein, who came to South Carolina 32 years ago and is the director of the Chabad-Aleph house in Columbia, South Carolina, said that his synagogue had expanded security provisions after the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. His 4-year-old grandson asked why they had security, he told BuzzFeed News.
Even though Epstein said he did not know enough about the politics of the bill to comment on how effective it would be, he found it heartening to see the support of the African American community and spoke at Monday’s press conference for that reason.
“My experience is one of healing and of a new generation that does not have some of the values of an older generation and that there’s a lot of good happening in South Carolina,” he said.