Attorney General Mark R. Herring on Monday morning kicked off a statewide tour to garner support for a series of bills aimed at curbing hate crimes and violence incited by white supremacists with a forum at a Leesburg synagogue.
Representatives of faith groups, organizations representing minorities and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office met with Herring around a table at the Congregation Sha’are Shalom to share their experiences and to offer suggestions about how the government can better protect residents amid increasingly divisive rhetoric nationally. The meeting came just one month after the worship center welcomed a standing-room-only crowd following mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA that left 11 dead, and on a day when jury selection continued in the murder trial of James Alex Fields, who is accused killing a counter protester during the white nationalists rally last year in Charlottesville.
“In Virginia and across the country, we’re seeing hate turn deadly with increasing frequency, and it is well past the time to acknowledge the threat posed by hate and white supremacist violence and take action to stop it,” Herring said to the group. “We have to make absolutely clear that white supremacist and extremist violence will not be tolerated in our commonwealth and we have to do more than just say it. It is important for leaders from the community all the way up to the top to condemn it, but I think we have to do more than that. We have to pair our words with action.”
According to statistics reported by the Virginia State Police, the number of reported hate crimes increased by 65 percent over the past 5 years. The 202 cases reported in 2017 was a 50 percent increase in one year.
Herring is proposing five bills that would: update the definition of hate crimes to create protections against crimes committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability; allow the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute hate crimes through multijurisdictional grand juries; prohibit the kind of paramilitary activity by that was demonstrated by white supremacists in the deadly Charlottesville riot; give law enforcement agencies more tools to identify and curtail white supremacist groups perpetrating or planning acts of violence; allowing localities to ban firearms from public spaces during events that require permits; and prohibit those convicted of hate crimes from possessing guns.
“I certainly have images from that Friday night and Saturday that I will never get out of my mind,” Herring said of the Charlottesville rally, recalling the torch-bearing marchers and the “heavily armed private, uniformed militias that intimidated people who were there to express the counter viewpoint, one of inclusion and equality.”
Community leaders—including representatives of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, the NAACP, Loudoun Interfaith Bridges, and the Arc of Loudoun, among others—welcomed efforts to combat acts of hatred and to address concerns about violence stemming from inflammatory rhetoric increasingly featured in the national dialogue. They also expressed frustration that more hasn’t been done to limit the ability of fringe groups from spreading hate messages and to punish those who attack or demean others.
“When lines are crossed, where somebody is hurt, injured or intimidated, then there needs to be some consequences to that,” Herring said.
The meeting also was attended by three members of Loudoun’s General Assembly delegation, delegates John Bell (D-87), Jennifer Boysko (D-86), and David LaRock (R-33).
While tensions involving intolerance appear to be increasing nationally, Herring, a Leesburg resident, said he was proud of the way his hometown has reacted.
“I really love the community I’m a part of,” he said. “None of us want to see the kind of hate and violence we see anywhere in the country, in our state. The one thing I have seen is that the community response when it does happen has been really strong.”
Pointing to the community’s outreach after the former African-American schoolhouse in Ashburn was vandalized, after instances when KKK recruitment fliers were left in driveways, and when race-related violence occurred in other areas, he said “the community comes together to say that’s not who we want to be and we need to work harder in our own community to prevent those types of hatred from taking root.”
Herring planned similar roundtable talks in Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, Norfolk and Roanoke during the next several weeks.