RICHMOND, Va. — Attorney General Mark Herring is proposing a package of bills to put a stop to hate crimes. Some of this legislation was initially brought to lawmakers last year, following the violent rallies that turned deadly in Charlottesville.
“I can never forget – I can never get out of my mind the images from Charlottesville,” Herring said.
In light of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., Herring hopes something will change.
“This needs to stop,” he added.
That Saturday morning three weeks ago, Temple Beth-El in Richmond went into lockdown to make sure there were no threats nearby.
Rabbi Michael Knopf says they were learning about what was happening while in the middle of service.
“We were more grieved. We were more pained. We were processing it in real time,” Rabbi Knopf said. “In some ways we were trying to regain our footing. We still had a service to conduct.”
What could they do?
“Some of what was most important of what we could do was to keep on praying,” he explained.
It wasn’t just an attack on one temple. To Rabbi Knopf, it was an attack on the nation. The underlying cause is hate.
“I think what we’ve seen over the years in the rise of white nationalism and hate groups and hate activity… is that the enemy of one targeted group, one minority group is very often the enemy of all minority groups,” he explained. “So the person a few years ago that brutally attacked the church in Charleston, chances are good that he did not have nice things to say about Jews either.”
There was an outpouring of support for the Jewish community after the 11 people were killed in Pittsburgh.
But, Rabbi Knopf says political leaders have to call this out for what it is.
“Some within our political leadership statewide and nationwide have been resident to call hate out by name and have even given indication that they friendly with ideologies and groups like that,” Rabbi Knopf said. “Nothing but the most forceful condemnation can really stem the tide of this.”
That’s why Attorney General Herring is bringing back a package of legislation to lawmakers this year.
“It’s not going to stop until officials and leaders at every single level of government from the smallest community to the highest office in the land condemn it. And that we say that we’re not going to tolerate that and give that and give law enforcement tools to go after it when it turns violent,” Herring said.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, most of the legislation has confirmed patrons to carry them into session next year. They expect more lawmakers to sign on soon.
One of the bills would give law enforcement more tools to identify white supremacist and hate groups that may be violent and intervene before anything happens. It’s being sponsored by Del. Marcia Price (D-95th District).
There’s also a measure that would allow Attorney General Herring to prosecute hate crimes through the Commonwealth’s network of multijurisdictional or regional grand juries. This wouldn’t take any powers away from Commonwealth’s Attorneys pursuing the same cases. That bill is backed by Del. Lamont Bagby (D-74th District)
Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36th District) is sponsoring a bill to update Virginia’s definition of “hate crime” to include gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability.
Another bill, backed by House Minority Leader Del. David Toscano (D-57th District), would allow localities to ban firearms at a public event if a permit is required for the event to take place.
In direct response to the paramilitary activity seen in Charlottesville, Herring wants to prevent private militias from forming. Sen. Louisa Lucas (D-District 18) is sponsoring it.
“The state constitution requires all militias to be under civil authority, that means answerable to government officials who are elected. Not private individuals who say let’s form a private army,” Herring said.
The last piece of legislation, Herring says would close a “loophole” to stop people convicted of a hate crime from getting a gun. This has yet to have someone back it.
Rabbi Knopf pointed out that this last bill, the one without a sponsor yet, is the most important.
“What ties all of these events together are the guns. So at some point, we as a society have to look at ourselves and look at our leaders and say – it’s the guns,” he explained. “I recognize not everyone agrees with me on that position, by denomination of Judaism, the Conservative movements, my organization of Rabbis – the Rabbinical assembly, has tried to be a leading voice on urging stricter gun safety and gun control.”
Another issue facing Rabbi Knopf’s congregation is the costs of security. There’s a security guard at the temple every week. They hire security for services, classes and high holy days. Alarms, security systems are throughout the buildings. Some doors are locked at all times. It costs about $25,000 a year for all of these measures. Rabbi Knopf says it would be helpful if there were grants available from the Commonwealth to help cover the costs.
“For us that’s a real challenge because for every dollar that we spend on security is a dollar we can’t spend on caring for the needs of our congregation,” he said.
Congregations, communities are continuing to come together to put a stop to hate. Every Virginian must do their part, advocates say.
“I know at our best, Virginia is a place that is open and welcoming to everybody,” Herring said. “This kind of hatred and bigotry is not going to be tolerated in Virginia.”