Many concerned as hate crime up county-wide in 2014
By Tom James
Kshama Sawant will be hosting a forum March 3 where she hopes to hear from Capitol Hill residents about their ideas for responding to a rise in hate crimes in the neighborhood.
The forum (of which The Seattle Lesbian is a co-sponsor) comes amid confusion over both the source and the prevalence of the attacks. While some have blamed newcomers, with the #CapHillPSA poster campaign targeting young affluent “bros” and “woo-girls” coming to the hill for its nightlife, others claim simple muggings to be more worrisome. Even the numbers are mixed – hate crimes have been widely reported to be up, but the FBI offers different figures from the County Prosecutor’s Office, who also tracks the crimes. The one thing everybody seems to agree on, though, is that the feeling in the neighborhood is a markedly insecure one.
The prosecutor’s office only tracks the crimes county-wide, but even at the higher level, hate crimes rose last year. In 2014, 18 hate crime charges were filed by the King County Prosecutor’s office, twice the number filed in any of the previous three years according to spokesman Dan Donohoe. But the higher numbers weren’t completely out of the ordinary, Donohoe said, adding that the average range has historically been between 10 and 20 in a given year. Including the rise last year, and a similar rise in 2010, the county has seen an average of about 12 of the crimes per year in over the last five years.
Two hate crime charges have been filed this year, Donohoe said, putting King County on track for a year closer to average numbers.
And numbers from other sources muddy the waters. Last year, Seattle Times reported FBI statistics including a different number for bias crimes targeting LGBTQ people – 19. But in the same year, the city prosecutor’s office reported only nine hate crimes.
What’s clear, though, is that a feeling of vulnerability is widespread on the hill right now, said Shaun Knittel, founder of Social Outreach Seattle, a neighborhood gay activist group. Knittel is also an editor at Seattle Gay News.
But, Knittel said, the roots of that feeling don’t trace just to the attacks that end up labeled hate crimes.
Instead, Knittel, who said victims sometimes approach his organization before going to the police, and who has arranged meetings between victims and police officials, said he hears as much about crimes that seem like simple robberies as they do hate crimes.
“They’re crimes of opportunity,” he said, strong-arm muggings that follow a predictable pattern, where an assailant runs up to, strikes, and shouts at a victim, often displaying a weapon, and demands phones and cash, then flees to a waiting car before police arrive.
Knittel said as much as anything, he chalks up many of the feelings in the neighborhood – and many of the recent crimes – to new growth and higher incomes in a neighborhood adjacent to poorer parts of the city. With more people carrying valuables on the streets of the suddenly-trendy neighborhood, criminals have started to see the community as a target.
And when victims are LGBTQ, and slurs are used in an attack, the question of whether an attack is a hate crime suddenly looms.
“It’s a numbers game,” Knittel said. “There’s a lot of gay people on the hill, so if somebody gets mugged, chances are they’re going to be gay.”
That ambiguity – where slurs might be incorporated into crimes with other motives – sometimes makes determining if it’s a hate crime difficult, said Mike Hogan, the deputy prosecutor in charge of prosecuting the crimes for the county. To make a hate crime charge stick, Hogan said, prosecutors have to be able to prove that bias was one of the main motivations for the crime, and the charge – malicious harassment – is one of only two under Washington law that requires proving intent.
That’s easy in some cases, Hogan said. In the most recent incident on the hill, Hogan said, a man named Troy Burns yelled slurs at three men near Broadway and Pike, then pulled out a knife and began to approach them. Police were nearby, and arrested Burns, who was drunk, immediately. The decision to charge him with a hate crime was easy, Hogan said, because Burns clearly targeted the men at random, because he thought they were gay.
Other cases are less clear cut. Hogan pointed to another recent incident where one man yelled a slur at two men. One of them yelled back, and an exchange of shouted insults soon turned into a fight. One of the men involved in the fight was adamant that the incident was a gay bashing – but multiple witnesses said that after the initial insult, it looked more like both parties were mutually aggressive.
Hogan, who is also a long-time resident of Capital Hill, agreed with Knittel and others that the influx of newcomers is linked to the increase, but said he saw a simpler connection. With more people coming into the neighborhood who don’t necessarily understand the community, he said, some friction just seems inevitable.
In a Wednesday interview, Sawant said she thought tracing the demographic of attackers was less important than what she characterized as the larger picture: the safety-in-numbers effect of a thriving LGBTQ community being fragmented as some members are driven out by rising rents.
“I don’t know that there’s any opposition to people moving into the district, but what’s hurting the community is people who have been living in the district have been displaced.”
Sawant said she won’t be unveiling any big plans at the forum. Instead, she wants to hear from community members.
Sawant declared earlier this year that she would be running in the upcoming election for the newly-created district seat representing the neighborhood as well as the Central District and Madison Park. In previous interviews has declared growth and rent control to be key issues in her campaign.
With the upcoming election, Knittel said he saw the forum as a blatantly political move, intended to score points with Capitol Hill voters.
“I have never seen Sawant at anything that I have ever been to on Capitol Hill,” said Knittel. But, he added, any work on neighborhood issues seems like a good thing to him, whatever the motivation.
“I think it’s because there’s an election coming up,” Knittel said. “But hey, good, someone is actually trying to do something.”
Critics have questioned whether Sawant, who in both campaigns has focused on city-wide issues, will be able to help the neighborhood with every day, neighborhood-specific issues like streetlights and potholes. Sawant, for her part, has questioned the distinction, saying that the same issues that affect the neighborhood affect the city as a whole.
Hosting an open discussion about an issue so near to neighborhood’s heart, Sawant will get her chance to make that case.
The forum will be held Tuesday, March 3 at 7:00 p.m. at the All Pilgrims Christian Church on Broadway.