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White House conference marks first step in reducing hate crimes

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 (JTA) – When President Clinton convened a White House conference this week aimed at countering the scourge of hate-driven violence, a major breakthrough was achieved: A president had put the weight of his office behind such efforts. But activists involved in the fight against racism, bigotry and prejudice say the more important accomplishment – seeing that everyone from the federal government down to the individual household follows through to help eradicate hate – can only be realized with time and hard work. “There is no question in my mind how important and significant and necessary this is – and it’s about time,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who spoke at Monday’s conference. “The very fact that the president used his bully pulpit on this subject makes all the difference in the world in terms of where it goes form here, and we have to pick up the ball.” Another participant, Kenneth Stern, a program specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee, said he hopes that the conference marks the beginning of a continuing process that will not only focus on toughening U.S. laws against hate crimes, but on other areas as well, including education, public service and community involvement against hate. “If people use the momentum from the conference wisely, they can help make some of the other components become a reality,” Stern said. The daylong conference, part of Clinton’s race relations initiative, brought together more than 350 civil rights activists, educators, religious leaders, law enforcement officials and victims of hate crimes. Vice President Al Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno and several other members of Clinton’s Cabinet also took part in the proceedings. Calling hate crimes the “antithesis of the values that define us as a nation,” Clinton announced a series of law-enforcement and prevention efforts to address the problem. “Anybody who thinks that in the world of today and tomorrow that he or she can hide from the kind of poison that we see in various places in our country is living in a dream world,” Clinton said. “Whether we like it or not, our futures are bound together, and it is time we acted like it.” There were 8,759 hate crimes reported in 1996, up from 7,947 the previous year. Because reporting is voluntary, however, it remains uncertain whether the numbers reflect an increase in hate activity or simply better reporting. He endorsed legislation that Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are sponsoring that would give federal prosecutors new authority to prosecute racial violence and hate crimes against women, the disabled, and gay and lesbian Americans. Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) intends to introduce a companion bill in the House of Representatives. Crimes committed against people because of their race, religion, color or national origin are considered hate crimes under existing federal law. Clinton also announced plans to create a network of local hate- crime groups to coordinate investigations and prosecutions. He said the Justice Department would assign more than 50 new FBI agents and prosecutors to work on hate-crimes enforcement. He also said the Department of Housing and Urban Development would begin imposing larger fines against people who discriminate in housing. During the conference, which was held at the George Washington University, Clinton participated in a panel discussion that included a Jewish woman from Billings, Mont., who rallied her community against an outbreak of anti-Semitic activity four years ago. Tammie Schnitzer, who had converted to Judaism, said she was rudely awakened to anti-Semitism when a brick came hurtling through her son’s window, where he had displayed a menorah. In a extraordinary show of solidarity, the people of Billings responded by posting pictures of menorahs in their own windows, ultimately driving the perpetrators out of town. “We came together as a community, we fought back with weapons of the spirit – determination, commitment, compassion, empathy and understanding – and we won the battle of Billings,” she said. Clinton praised Schnitzer as a “remarkable citizen who changed the whole psychology of a community,” and others pointed to Billings as an example for other communities to follow. At several points, the conference served to highlight the work of the ADL. Some of the participants referred to ADL anti-bias education and diversity-training programs that helped them, as a black Duke University student put it, “find my voice in a hate-filled world.” ADL, which drafted hate-crimes statutes now on the books and pioneered data collection on hate crimes, presented Clinton with a “blueprint for action” on hate crimes in advance of the White House conference. The publication provides hate-crimes prevention and response strategies such as penalty-enhancement laws, training for law enforcement and the military, security for community institutions and community anti-bias awareness initiatives. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who also attended the conference, said the president’s focus on combating hate crimes is particularly important from the Jewish community’s perspective because there is always the potential for anti-Semitic scapegoating in the event of an economic collapse or other “extreme pressures on America.” “We can’t predict the future of America and we can’t sit back on our laurels because the Skinhead movement or the neo-Nazi movement may be down from one year to the next, ” Hier said. “It’s important,” he added, “to take stock of where we are in terms of hate, combating hate and who the haters are.”