You’re supposed to speak up. That’s what the police always say – if you see something, say something.
But when a bystander did so this past winter in downtown Seattle, the tensions of the past year boiled over. Maybe they would have anyway, but in this case the bystander who stuck his neck out to help happened to be Black.
A 31-year-old white man with a record of petty crimes had gotten in an argument with a security guard at the Walgreens downtown. He allegedly spit in the guard’s face, which during a pandemic is reason enough to flag down the police.
When the cops got there, they asked for a witness. An African American man stepped forward, saying he saw the whole thing and pointing cops to the spitter just as he was trying to sidle away in the crowd. The white man was incredulous at being called out.
“You snitch [racial slur],” he railed at the Black man, according to charging documents. Even after being handcuffed by the cops, he threatened to kill the Black man, repeatedly called him the epithet, and then, as recorded on the officers’ bodycams, said: “I’m gonna enslave your punk [bleep].”
The white man, Francis O’Neill, has been charged with a hate crime, a felony, for intimidating a witness with racial threats.
What’s notable about this Walgreens incident, though, is how commonplace it is around here.
The city of Seattle has since released bias crime data for 2020, and it’s shocking. There were 791 hate or bias incidents reported to the police, more than two per day, an increase of 63% over 2019.
These include hate crimes, other crimes where bias played a role and also noncriminal bias incidents that were reported to Seattle police. The vast majority revolve around race or sexual orientation.
The most serious are malicious harassment, such as the case at the Walgreens above. These are direct threats or assaults in which the victim’s race or other characteristics, such as religion or sexual orientation, is the prime motivating force. These rose 22%. Crimes where bias played a side role were up 57%, while noncriminal incidents, like shouting racist slurs, more than doubled.
Despite the rising number of hate crime reports, King County charged only 59 hate crimes in 2020 across the entire county — and still that’s one of the top caseloads for bias crimes in the nation.
Attacks against Asian Americans have been in the news lately, and indeed city data shows they spiked last year, to 28 incidents that involved a crime versus 17 incidents the year before. There was another the other day, with a 72-year-old woman arrested for calling her Vietnamese American neighbor various anti-Asian slurs and threatening to kill her.
But anti-Black hate acts soared the most, from 96 incidents that involved a crime in 2019 to 171 in 2020 – a 78% jump.
What is going on?
“Are people acting more hateful?” wonders a King County prosecutor, David Bannick, who pursues hate-crimes cases as a sort of side gig from his regular job on homicide and violent crimes. “It’s hard to deny it, with numbers like these. It’s very disheartening.”
Seattle reported nearly 500 racial incidents last year (this includes crimes but also noncriminal episodes). There were 133 anti-gay incidents, and the next biggest category was attacks against religion, with 38 (23 of those were classified as anti-Jewish and eight as anti-Muslim).
Bannick said that with racial issues atop the nation’s mind in 2020, it’s possible that people were just more likely to report hateful acts. But he also said society clearly frayed in the pandemic, with prosecutors seeing more hate crimes committed by people who had lost access to mental health or drug treatment.
This raises the question of what should be done about it. Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, along with Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, has asked for a four-person Hate Crimes Task Force, costing $549,000 annually, to pursue all these cases referred by police full time.
That is the opposite, though, of calls to defund the police. It’s calling for more police and prosecutorial involvement into some of the most fraught cultural issues of our time.
Hate-crime prosecution is tricky because while the victims by definition tend to come from marginalized communities, the perpetrators are all over the map. So far this year, King County prosecutors have filed 11 felony-level hate-crime cases – and in five, the accused perpetrators are white, while in six, they’re Black. So this isn’t just an issue where the majority punches down at minorities.
One case, filed two weeks ago, is against a 51-year-old Black man from SeaTac who marched in Black Lives Matter protests on Capitol Hill last year, but this spring is alleged to have harassed three Asian American women. Court documents say Christopher Hamner charged at their cars, pounding his fists and shouting anti-Asian slurs. He has no criminal history but remains in jail for now due to concerns about community safety.
One of his victims told KOMO News that jail isn’t likely to change anything.
“At the end of the day if he goes to jail, he still comes out as a racist full of hate,” she said. “There’s no rehab in it so to me it’s pointless.”
She is Chinese and Malaysian and had her young children in the car at the time, and was described by Seattle police as “crying while we spoke, even days after the incident.”
Bannick, the prosecutor, said hate crimes can terrorize entire communities like this. But the victim’s critique of jail is more or less right, he said. Increasingly they try to plead many felony-level hate crimes down to misdemeanors in exchange for the perpetrator going through regional mental-health court and hopefully getting treatment.
“We’re not looking at prison or jail as an answer here,” he said. But without more resources, “we’re doing Band-Aid solutions.”
Averaging two hate incidents per day in Seattle is an epidemic. And those are just the ones reported. The county’s ask for more money for hate-crimes prosecution closes with a dour forecast: “All estimates are that this exponential growth will continue.”
Seattle prides itself on being progressive and enlightened about fixing institutional racism. This is different — this is racial hate bubbling up from the people. I don’t know if more prosecution is the answer, or something else, but a reckoning is due, because we’ve obviously got a serious problem.