Fargo moving forward with 'hate crime' laws
The city commission also approved the hiring of its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion
FARGO — Perhaps Fargo City Commissioner John Strand summed it up best.
It was a big night for Fargo in what could be the beginning of more racial justice in the city.
Not only are hate crime laws in the city apparently headed for passage, but the city also approved hiring its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
On Tuesday, June 1, the commission voted 3-2 to proceed with ordinances allowing police and city prosecutors to charge residents with a Class B misdemeanor if it was found they committed one of three crimes "in whole or part because of the victim's perceived or actual race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin or ancestry."
The added charge would carry a penalty of a $1,500 fine or 30 days in jail, the highest offense a city may charge, which would attach to charges for simple assault, harassment and criminal mischief, all three city laws.
The vote was the same 3-2 on hiring Terry Hogan of Chicago, a black man, as the new diversity director who pledged a 90-day plan to look into diversity and inclusion issues.
City activists and people of color were overjoyed with the decisions after several addressed the commission about their experiences with mostly verbal forms of abuse and urging passage of the hate crime ordinances.
No one from the public spoke against the hate crime proposal, which will be voted again for final passage at upcoming meetings.
The crowd of roughly 40 were all smiles after the hate crimes vote, which was supported by Mayor Tim Mahoney and City Commissioners Arlette Preston and John Strand.
Opposed were City Commissioners Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn. It was a similar breakdown on vote to hire the diversity director.
"I don't feel safe. I have been attacked in Fargo at least three times in the past year," said Bjern Soine, a member of the LQBTQ community, who described the attacks as slurs against him. "I think having additional charges for hate crimes will make Fargo a better place, knowing our oppressors won't get a slap on the wrist when these things happen. "
Arden Light, a transgender person, described how another young man "flipped out" and described to him how he would kill him while he was spending the summer enjoying the skate park near downtown.
"Thankfully there were people there to pull him away," Light said, adding that 75% of transgender students in school don't feel safe and almost 50% attempt suicide before age 18. "Imagine if all those kids knew elected officials and the city cared about them," he said.
Avalon Fyreheart and local racial equality leader Wess Philome described an incident on Interstate 94 foot bridge where they were told to "go back to Africa" as they stood by a flag with an African symbol. The person also tore down a gay pride flag, Philome recalled.
Local Black Lives Matter leader Faith Dixon said she pays taxes here and has three businesses and said she sees no reason why she can't live in the community and face threats "because I'm black."
"I don't want to see Fargo turn into a Minneapolis or Chicago. I want this to be a safe place where we can all be safe and raise our children," Dixon said.
Barry Nelson of the state Human Rights Coalition said there are "dozens of stories of people being harassed, threatened and cases of property vandalized and people experiencing bodily harm."
Nelson said North Dakota was among only a handful of states that doesn't have effective hate crime laws.
The current state "bias crime" law only affects such attacks on public property and Nelson said it "hasn't been used in its over 40 years of existence."
Cheryl Miller, a member of the local group called Moms Demand Action that advocates for public safety measures from gun violence, said there are more than 10,000 hate crimes in the U.S. a year involving firearms.
"City ordinances can shape and direct the culture," she said.
Activist Clara Derby talked about the argument that hate crime laws "police people's beliefs," and that, "it's not illegal to hate someone, but it is illegal to act on it."
City Commissioner Arlette Preston, who led the charge on the ordinances and worked with many others, said the state attorney general declined to given an opinion on the legality of the city law. "To be honest with you if this is successful, we will see numbers go up because people will be reporting more often. It is an issue of safety and security and we want to live in a community where a person feels safe. It's not going to cure everything, but it is a beginning."
Gehrig said he believed the speakers, but added there was no evidence from other cities that it "fixed the problem."
"There are zero examples where the crime rate went down. I understand you want to do this for a good reason, but the reality is this will not make a difference. It doesn't do anything but divide us," Gehrig said.
Strand urged all folks from other parts of North Dakota living in small towns who don't feel safe because of harassment or threats to come to Fargo to find a job, start a career and to build up the city's workforce.
"We'll be on the right side of history," he said. "It's better than what we have and better than nothing."