Department of Justice

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Gives Remarks at the Civil Rights Division’s Virtual Conference: Confronting Hate: Strategies for Prevention, Accountability and Justice | OPA

Remarks as Delivered

Good morning. 

Thank you for joining us for this important event, Confronting Hate: Strategies for Prevention, Accountability, and Justice

We always welcome the opportunity to gather with community leaders and civil rights advocates.

These forums give us an opportunity to learn from one another. This particular convening will allow us to take stock of where we are and where we need to go in our joint fight against hate. 

I want to thank Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for her leadership, for her longstanding commitment to this task, and for bringing us together today.

This Thursday marks the twelfth anniversary of the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. As you well know, the Act is named after two innocent victims of heinous crimes that occurred in 1998.

Matthew Shepard – a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming – was robbed, tortured, tied to a fence along a country road and left to die by two men who offered him a ride home from a local bar.

James Byrd Jr. – a 49-year-old African-American man living in Jasper, Texas – also accepted a ride home from strangers. They drove him to the remote edge of town where they beat him, tied him by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. 

The investigation into Matthew Shepard’s death found strong evidence that his attackers targeted him because he was gay. The three men responsible for killing James Byrd Jr. were well-known white supremacists.

But while the men responsible for these killings were later convicted of murder, none was prosecuted for committing a hate crime. At the time, federal hate crime protections did not include violent acts based on the victim’s sexual orientation. 

Existing laws also only covered racial violence against those engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting or attending school. The landmark legislation bearing James’ and Matthew’s names greatly expanded the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes.

The law enables the Justice Department to prosecute crimes motivated by race, color, religion and national origin without having to show that the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. The Act also empowers the department to prosecute hate crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.

We are honored to be joined later in the program by Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis, and James’s sister, Louvon.

The law named for their loved ones has made an enormous difference in our ability to prosecute and deter acts of hate. The passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 is an integral part of an important legacy.

The Justice Department was founded during Reconstruction to enforce the rights promised by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. This required confronting the racist conduct of the Ku Klux Klan and others who used terror and violence to keep African-Americans from exercising their civil rights.

Though the Justice Department’s work to address unlawful acts of hate has a deep history, it remains an immediate and pressing charge that constantly requires new thinking.

That is why my first directive as Attorney General was to order an internal review to determine how the department could deploy all the tools at its disposal to counter the rise in hate crimes and hate incidents.

While that review was nearing completion, Congress passed another piece of anti-hate legislation: the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act. In light of our internal review and that new law, the Justice Department is taking a number of steps to enhance our efforts to combat unlawful acts of hate.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta are ensuring that the department: improves incident reporting; increases law enforcement training and coordination at all levels of government; prioritizes community outreach; and makes better use of civil enforcement mechanisms.

As part of our efforts, we assigned a Deputy Associate Attorney General to lead and coordinate the department’s anti-hate crime and incident resources. Rachel Rossi is serving as the department’s inaugural Anti-Hate Coordinator, and I’m glad you will have the opportunity to hear from her later today.

Pursuant to my directive and the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, the Civil Rights Division is also expediting its review of federal hate crimes. Over the past six months, the department has charged more than 17 defendants with federal hate crimes, including in the case of the death of Ahmaud Arbery. We have also secured convictions in a number of notable hate crime cases. 

For example, in 2019, a shooter killed one and wounded three others at a synagogue in Southern California. The defendant then set fire to a nearby mosque. Last month, that defendant pleaded guilty to all 113 counts and agreed to spend life in prison without parole.

The Justice Department will continue to use its criminal enforcement tools effectively, but we understand that our work must go beyond criminal prosecutions. So we are also hard at work maximizing the use of our non-criminal resources. For example, I have directed the establishment of a full-time Language Access Coordinator within the department.

In doing so, we hope that improved language access will improve people’s willingness and ability to report their experiences with hate. In another example of non-criminal action, the Civil Rights Division recently worked with the Department of Education to identify resources for students and families facing pandemic-related harassment. In keeping with our commitment to language access, that product was translated into several languages.

In addition, the department has revitalized the Community Relations Service (CRS), and I am glad that you will have a chance to meet our CRS Acting Director later today. 

A few weeks ago, I hosted a listening session with Secretary of Health and Human Services Becerra. The purpose of that event was to help shape guidance aimed at raising awareness of hate crimes during the pandemic. That session was yet another reminder of the painful and profound ways that bias-motivated violence harms entire communities.

At the Justice Department, we are committed to using every tool at our disposal to address unlawful acts of hate. We are grateful to call you partners in this effort. This work is not easy, but it is essential. 

Thank you for joining us today, and for all that you do to confront hate.     

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