FARGO — City Commissioners passed a hate crime ordinance 3-2 Monday, June 28, that will provide additional penalties to crimes of bias, a move that some consider a bypass of the state legislature.

Mayor Tim Mahoney and City Commissioners Arlette Preston and John Strand voted in favor of the hate crime law, while Commissioners Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn voted against the ordinance.

On June 1, the city commission voted 3-2 to proceed with ordinances allowing police and city prosecutors to charge residents with a Class B misdemeanor if 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 $1,500 or 30 days in jail, which is the harshest punishment a city can impart. It would be attached to crimes of simple assault, harassment and criminal mischief.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Before the vote, Gehrig attempted to add political affiliation to the list, which was voted down but could be added at a later date as an amendment, Preston said.

About 20 activists and supporters of the ordinance clapped after the vote was made, but Arden Light, a transgender man and local activist leader, is expecting the ordinance to be legally challenged.

“We’ve been working on this since last August, and we were worried that the state would be preemptive and say we can’t do this,” Light said.

Although the North Dakota Century Code already has a hate crime law, it is “minimalist” and only applies to situations on public property, said Barry Nelson of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition.

One person spoke against the ordinance before the vote was made.

Fargo resident Sheri Fercho addressed city commissioners, asking them to vote against the ordinance. She said it would pit the city of Fargo against the rest of the state.

Sheri Fercho voices her opinion against the Fargo City Commission hate crime ordinance vote at Fargo City Hall on Monday, June 28, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
Sheri Fercho voices her opinion against the Fargo City Commission hate crime ordinance vote at Fargo City Hall on Monday, June 28, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

“Even if they feel this is a worthy cause, it sends a divisive message,” Fercho said, adding the strategy to bypass the state legislature was wrong and may lead to litigation in the future. Similar hate crime legislative bills have been proposed to the state legislature in recent years and failed.

“Please consider slowing this process down to draft a well-written bill,” Fercho said. “First of all, it must be done in the right way and for the right causes. Being a conservative, you also have to consider everyone. Look at this in a slow, patient way and don’t be in a hurry to pass this tonight.”

Wess Philome, organizer of racial justice organization OneFargo, said the hate crime ordinance is not dismissive or divisive. He pointed out a series of crimes he considered to be hate-driven in the past year, including the vandalism of the Moorhead Fargo Islamic Center and protesters being targeted by moving vehicles.

“May history and our community see those who did their best to protect us from hate, and those who stood in direct opposition. We must consistently strive for Fargo to be inclusive for all,” Philome said, adding the ordinance did not need to end up like the hate crime law currently in the Century Code “that no one has ever been charged with."

Faith Shields-Dixon, an organizer with Black Lives Matter of Fargo-Moorhead, said she hoped all commissioners would vote in favor of the ordinance. Recently, she said, P’s & Q’s Etiquette LLC, an office space in Fargo where young women of color go to feel safe, was ransacked.

A Facebook fundraiser by former Moorhead mayor Del Ray Williams raised $5,145 out of a $5,000 goal to help Moorhead Area School Board member Rachel Stone with the cleanup of the office.

On May 20, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law, which is an effort nationwide to facilitate and expedite reviews of hate crimes and reporting hate crimes. Included in the law are stipulations for the Department of Justice to issue guidance for state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies on establishing online hate crime reporting processes, collecting data and raising awareness about hate crimes during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The bill also establishes grants to create state-run hate crime reporting hotlines and authorizes grants for state and local governments to implement the National Incident-Based Reporting System and conduct crime reduction programs to prevent, address or respond to hate crimes.