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Civil Rights Division Spotlights Cross Burning
Posted By Ryan J. Reilly On November 10, 2009 @ 9:59 pm In News | Comments Disabled
The Obama Justice Department is drawing attention to recent prosecutions of cross burning incidents, but it’s not clear whether the renewed focus reflects an increase in the number of such race-based events.
Tom Perez, the Justice Department’s new Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, said in a news conference in Indianapolis last Friday that recent hate crimes such as cross burnings “remind us that as far as we have come in our pursuit of the promise of equal opportunity and equal justice for all, we still have a long road ahead.”
The Civil Rights Division has made aggressive prosecutions of hate crimes a top priority, Perez said in Indianapolis. He spoke after the sentencing of three men for burning a cross in the yard of an African-American family in Muncie, Ind., in July 2008.
A Justice Department official told Main Justice that 16 defendants were prosecuted in cross burning cases in the 2009 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. That number is the most since fiscal 2004, when 18 defendants were charged in cross burning cases.
But because the numbers reflect the cases that DOJ chose to prosecute, rather than the number of actual cross burnings, it’s not clear whether the number of cross burnings is on the upswing.
“I don’t think it really tells you much of anything because it seems fairly obvious that most of them would not be prosecuted as federal crimes,” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center  told Main Justice. “As a general matter, if the locals are going to prosecute, the feds will stand back. All these things are primarily state crimes, they can come in afterward and charge you with civil rights violations.”
Indiana is one of just five states that does not have a state hate crimes law.
Perez said upon his return to the Justice Department last month after prosecuting civil rights cases more than 20 years ago, “it quickly became apparent that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“We continue to see expressions of intolerance all over America, whether it be in the form of a burning cross, or acts of violence on election night in retribution for the victory of our first African American president,” said Perez. “These are stories we expect to read about in history books, not in today’s newspapers.”
He added: The “Civil Rights Division is open for business, and that individuals who find themselves the victims of violent acts fueled by bigotry and hate have the power and the authority of the United States government behind them.”
Potok has been monitoring cross burnings for about 12 years, usually from reports in local newspapers. He said he sees about 40 to 50 per year. While he hasn’t seen an increase in cross burning incidents, he said it appears the punishments for such crimes are getting tougher.
“We’ve seen what looks like a trend towards harsher sentencing in cross burning cases,” said Potok. “There was a time when no one got any time at all for burning crosses … we’ve seen people being sentenced more recently from anywhere from a short spell to as much as 15 to 20 years in prison. There have been some quite harsh sentences around cross burning cases in the past five years or so.”
In an interview with The Indianapolis Star , Perez said that hate crimes “are different because they reflect the desire not only to break the bones or spirit of the individual, but also to break the spirit of the community at large.”
The Civil Rights Division, created in 1957 to counter Jim Crow  laws that discriminated against blacks in the South, moved away from its traditional mission during the George W. Bush administration. To great controversy, Bush officials staffed the division with conservative-leaning career lawyers and shifted its emphasis toward the prosecution of religious bias and human trafficking cases.
President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder — both the first African-Americans to hold their positions — have pledged to refocus the Civil Rights Division on its traditional mission of enforcing anti-discrimination laws against minorities.
In Indianapolis, Perez said the division had been politicized during the Bush administration, according to The Star. He added that the Obama administration wanted the division to be nonpartisan, the newspaper said. That goal may be difficult to reach. Congressional Republicans have criticized  the Obama DOJ for its dismissal in May of the bulk of a voter intimidation case against two members of the anti-white fringe group New Black Panther Party, questioning whether politics influenced the decision.
Potok agreed that the Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration was increasing the emphasis on enforcement of civil rights laws.
“Certainly they seem to be developing a better reputation than the Bush administration, which seemed to pursue civil rights as a matter of show rather than substance,” said Pokok. “We’re waiting, really, to see what happens. The Justice Department is supposedly working on these cold cases, looking back at these civil rights cases, and we haven’t seen any of them come to trial, so there’s a bit of a wait-and-see attitude.”
Joe Palazzolo contributed to this story.
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