Hundreds attend anti-hate crime rally in Austin
It was an impassioned sight at Austin City Hall on Saturday, Feb. 27, as nearly a thousand people gathered for the "Austin March Against Hate," a rally that retraced the steps of two gay men who were beaten in a parking garage a few days earlier.
The march highlighted the connection between Austin's LGBT residents and the city's police department, but the event also revealed growing concerns about the way the state handles possible anti-LGBT hate crimes.
According to police, officials must investigate the incident as an assault. The responsibility to prosecute it as a hate crime falls under the Travis County District Attorney's jurisdiction.
Chuck Smith, interim execute director of Equality Texas, said while the APD is doing their due diligence in this case, more clarity is needed when recording the evidence.
"There's confusion in the public, at times I think there's confusion among the law enforcement agencies in terms of how to report, how to investigate, what to look for, what to ask, and the whole process of investigating a hate crime," he said.
Since Texas lawmakers passed the James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2001, officials have prosecuted only 12 out of the 1,800 reported hate crimes. Smith said over the past three years, reports have shown there has been an increase in both bias motivated crimes and crimes with regard to sexual orientation.
So what's the best solution?
Smith suggests even though police can't technically decide the classification, they should make sure they conduct a thorough investigation.
"It is the law enforcement agency's responsibility for their reports to document any evidence of bias or bias motivation related to the crime in order for a [district attorney] to make an accurate assessment," he said.
Openly gay Austin City Councilmember Randi Shade said a little awareness goes a long way.
"...It seems that the best way to fight prejudices and senseless violence is through positive actions like what we witnessed at the march this past Saturday," she said.
Four unknown men followed Emmanuel Winston and Matthew Morgan for three blocks from Oilcan Harry's bar to the parking garage at Austin City Hall early on Saturday, Feb. 20. They shouted anti-gay slurs at them before they attacked them. Winston, a marketing student at the University of Texas, and Morgan, 29, were wearing pink and blue "Shady Ladies" softball jerseys. And the two men believe their assailants targeted them because of their sexual orientation.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo gave a statement during the march, assuring attendees the department will continue to give this case its full attention to the case. Acevedo further encouraged the City Council to earmark additional funding for high-resolution video surveillance. The APD also released a brief, grainy video that showed the four suspects walking toward Morgan and Winston in the City Hall parking garage.
This isn't the first time Acevedo has asked for increased surveillance, but Smith and Shade both expressed satisfaction with the way the APD has handled this case. And they added the response to the attack against Winston and Morgan shows the unity they maintain exists between the police and the city's LGBT residents.
"Their call for courage and justice set an important tone that made me feel extremely proud to live in Austin," Shade said.