What Is a Hate Crime? And What You Can Do if You Experience One

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Experiencing a hate crime, or witnessing one, can be a traumatic experience. Arash Malekzadeh, whose own experience is featured in this story, captured how it felt in this artwork. (Arash Malekzadeh)

This story was updated Feb. 10, 2021.

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A recent spate of attacks against Asian American seniors has shocked the Bay Area.

Several assaults have been committed in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose in the last few weeks alone. One of these attacks resulted in the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man.

The attacks have provoked a heated — and fraught — debate in the Bay Area on how to combat anti-Asian racism and promote public safety. They're also a grim reminder that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there’s been a rise in hate crimes directed toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, fueled by the Trump administration’s sustained scapegoating of Chinese people for the coronavirus.

Advocates say they observed an uptick in hate crimes as protests erupted nationwide against police violence and racism in the summer of 2020. As the pandemic raged, the "another Bay Area hate crime" headlines kept coming: The possible noose found at the Sonoma Raceway. The defacement of a Black Lives Matter mural. Racist graffiti. A string of at least five incidents in Oakland, in one short period alone.

Nichole Anderson (pictured) and David Nelson from Martinez have been charged with three misdemeanors, including a hate crime, for attempting to deface a city-permitted Black Lives Matter mural. (YouTube)

Original story below:

I researched hate crimes in the Bay Area to bring you this guide. But even as I did so, my reporting took a very personal turn.

On a socially distanced road trip to the Yosemite Foothills with my partner Arash and a couple friends in the summer of 2020, we all stopped briefly at a grocery store, where Arash asked an employee if he could use the restroom — but was told they were closed to customers. He ran across the street to use another bathroom instead. While I went to wait in the car, Arash then returned to the grocery store to meet back up with our friends. He soon came out shaking.

It turned out that the store’s restrooms hadn’t been closed — and that our white friend and other white customers had been allowed to use them. Not only that, but when the employee who had denied Arash access saw he’d returned to the store, the man begun boasting loudly to a coworker about sleeping with loaded firearms, and how he was ready to discharge them on “crazy people.” As he said this, he gestured towards my partner — the only person of color in the store, aside from myself earlier — who was wearing a mask that said ‘Black Lives Matter.’ He continued making his threats as Arash swiftly left the store.

As a journalist who’d spent that week compiling resources for people facing situations just like this, even I was left asking questions. Was that a hate crime? What do we do? Who can we call? How do we process these feelings — of shock, of anger, of helplessness and suddenly feeling very unsafe?

What is the Definition of a Hate Crime?

Firstly, authorities will treat a hate crime differently than a hate incident. The legal distinction between a hate crime and a hate incident determines if police can conduct an investigation and charge the perpetrator — for a hate incident, they can't — but it can be tricky to distinguish the two. And it’s common for people to doubt the validity of their own experiences — as my partner and I did.

The bottom line is: Most anti-hate organizations collect reports of hate crimes and incidents. And if you want to file a report to police, but aren’t sure if it rises to the level of a crime, don't let that hold you back. You have the right to still report a hate incident, and these reports are valuable to law enforcement regardless. Even if it's not ultimately deemed a hate crime, police will still connect you with relevant resources, according to Sheryl Davis, the executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission (HRC).

So what is a hate crime? We often think of them in terms of physical violence or property destruction, based on what makes news headlines. But the definition is actually more encompassing.

A hate crime is committed when an act that is illegal under the law is motivated by bias toward a specific group, such as on the basis of:

  • Race or color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender or gender identity
  • Disability

If the action or speech in question threatens a person or property, that’s a telltale sign it's a hate crime. In California, hate crimes are prosecuted by city and district attorneys under the state's penal code.

How should you deal with a hate crime in the moment? Documenting is important, but your safety is key. (Johan Bos/Pexels)

Hate incidents, on the other hand, are when an action is motivated by bias but doesn’t rise to the level of a crime. These can include:

  • Name-calling
  • Insults
  • Distributing hate material in public places, or on someone’s own property.

These instances are often legally protected by the Constitutional right to freedom of speech. However, hate incidents can still be the subject of civil lawsuits, under the state's civil code.

The San Francisco HRC, and many other organizations doing anti-hate work, say it’s important to capture hate crimes and incidents. That's because they believe FBI and state law enforcement reports are under-representing the bigger picture of racism, violence and threats happening — both because of underreporting to law enforcement, and the absence of incidents that don’t rise to the level of a crime.

What Should I Do During a Hate Crime?

My partner Arash is from a Southern California town where the population is 70 percent white. He's told me stories from his childhood: from the time his family was shot at and berated to "go back to their own country," to being profiled and harassed by police before hitting puberty — all under the backdrop of Confederate flags proudly waving throughout his hometown. He's no stranger to racism.

But still — in that moment in the grocery store — he said he felt completely helpless. "I've been forced to prepare for experiences like this my entire life. But in the moment, none of that mattered because of the overwhelm of shock and emotion," Arash told me. "I didn't feel safe to speak up because I thought I'd be seen not as the victim, but as the aggressor — in an environment I was already unwelcome in."

Every hate crime or incident is different, and it can be challenging to know how to respond in the moment. The most important two things to remember are: trust your instincts, and prioritize safety above all else.

Here are some best practices for witnesses and victims of hate crimes in the moment, based on guidance from the Stop AAPI Hate team, the Anti-Defamation League and Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office:

If you're the one experiencing hate:

  • If it's safe to do so, leave the area or move to a location with other people who might be able to support you
  • Check in with yourself and try to remain calm. Focus on your breathing, limit eye-contact and be conscious of your body language
  • It's best to not speak or engage with the perpetrator. But if it's safe to do so, use a calm and firm tone to verbally establish physical boundaries and condemn the attacker's speech or actions
  • If there are witnesses present, ask them for support or intervention
  • Seek medical attention, if necessary
  • Following the incident, get emotional support from your loved ones and/or a mental health specialist
  • Consider reporting the incident (see more on that below).

If you're witnessing hate:

  • Introduce yourself to the person being targeted and ask how you can support them
  • If the victim consents and it's safe to do so, continue to monitor the situation and document it
  • Ignore the perpetrator and use verbal and nonverbal communication to deescalate the situation, if possible
  • Invite the victim to leave with you, if possible
  • Offer them support, ask how they're feeling and what they want to do next.

Reminder: click here to email this guide to someone 

How Should I Document a Hate Crime?

Because of the volume of hate crimes we see in videos across social media, captured by people at the scene, getting out your phone might seem like a crucial step. But while documenting and reporting hate incidents are important, "personal safety should always be paramount," said Seth Brysk, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, in an email.

How should you deal with a hate crime in the moment? Documenting is important, but your safety is key. (Wendy Wei/Pexels)

Some ideas for documenting hate safely are:

  • Write down notes about what happened and the exact words that were said
  • Write a description of the perpetrator(s) and vehicle, if relevant, and collect information from any witnesses
  • Save all evidence, and take photos and video, only if you feel safe doing so
  • Collect the names and contact information of any other victims and witnesses
  • If you want to, and feel safe doing so, contact the local police or sheriff and/or report to community organizations.

How to Report Hate if You Don't Want to Involve Police

If you don’t wish to involve the police by report a hate crime or incident to them, there are community organizations and some city localities collecting reports in order to educate others, inform policy and show service providers where support is needed.

The San Francisco HRC, which staffs the San Francisco Coalition Against Hate Violence — a group made up of 20 agencies working to end hate incidents and hate crimes — has a holistic system in place where people can report hate crimes and incidents. The commission won’t contact the police, unless the victim consents to it. However, not all local reporting systems have the same commitment, so you should always ask before going through the reporting process.

The HRC's Sheryl Davis said her office is working on expanding its mental health support and how to address and deal with the trauma itself. “What do we do for those moments and those times when something happens, but it's not connected with a violent act or vandalism? How do we capture that information?” she said.

“There's a whole system shift that we have to think about, as this is becoming more centered and people are talking about it a little bit more,” Davis said. “How do we mainstream this and be more intentional about what we're seeing?”

For example, her office received multiple reports of verbal abuse toward people riding San Francisco's Muni for speaking languages other than English. Although she said it’s unlikely they’d be able to track down the specific people who made comments, these reports can nonetheless lead to conversations with the MTA, and inform any potential campaign around this issue to prevent it from happening in the future.

“This is where you come to file a complaint if you feel like you've been discriminated against or experienced bias, and then it helps us really inform policy,” she said.

Here are local and federal groups that collect hate crime and incident reports that you could contact:

  • San Francisco residents can file a report to the city’s Human Rights Commission by emailing Program Director Tuquan Harrison at Tuquan.Harrison@sfgov.org
  • The Council of American-Islamic Relations of the San Francisco Bay Area is documenting Islamophobia, hate incidents and crimes and providing assistance to victims: Report to them here, or call their civil rights department at 408-986-9874
  • The Communities Against Hate is a coalition — led by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and The Leadership Conference Education Fund — to document hate and connect victims to resources, mental health services and in some cases, legal counsel. Report to them here or call 1-844-9-NO-HATE
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors hate groups and extremists around the country: Report to them here
  • The Anti-Defamation League investigates incidents of bias, hatred or bigotry: Report to them here
  • The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action have a reporting center for incidents of hate against Asian American and Pacific Islanders, which can include microaggressions, bullying, harassment, hate speech or violence: Report to them here
  • The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' complaint referral service can connect you with the appropriate office for filing a discrimination complaint: Call them at 1-800-552-6843

If the incident occurred inside a business, you can also reach out to the managers or headquarters of the company to make a direct complaint.


How to Report a Hate Crime to the Police

Some state agencies and community groups encourage contacting local law enforcement as an important step to take after a hate crime occurs. You can contact your local police or sheriff’s office via their non-emergency line, or dial 911 if it's an emergency.

In a video in June calling on Californians to unite against hate, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said, “Crime motivated by hate leaves a deep, lasting scar that can corrode and ripple through society.”

“And this current public health crisis, unfortunately has made many of those ripple affects stronger and clearer than ever,” added Assemblymember Shirley Weber, the chair of California’s legislative Black caucus.

Here is more information from the attorney general's office about spotting and reporting hate crimes to law enforcement. You can also make a federal report to the FBI here.

Additionally, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center is a public safety government program that works alongside law enforcement to provide a regional picture of trends and patterns. You can report a hate crime to the center here, as a supplement to reporting to law enforcement.

Mental Health Tips and Resources for People Impacted by Hate

Experiencing hate and racism can ignite trauma on multiple levels — including intergenerational trauma passed down genetically — as well as acutely impacting our feeling of safety in the immediate moment.

Being the victim of, or a witness to, a hate crime can be a traumatizing experience. (Inzmam Khan/Pexels)

“It's really important that we recognize that racism is trauma,” said Dr. Natalye Pearson, a Berkeley-based licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and racial identity. “Part of racism is that we dismiss our own experience as not real. It's like, ‘Oh, no, that's not happening. Oh, no, I'm not affected by that. No, that's not why I'm anxious.’ And that's completely why we are.”

Mental Health Resources

Hate crimes and incidents impact not just the direct targets, but the trauma also reverberates into their communities — and to people who may see the incident in the news or on social media.

“Seeing those images repeatedly, over and over and over again, it really is traumatic,” Pearson said. “When we see things like George Floyd and that police officer on his neck — for a lot of us — it brings up a public lynching, and then reinforces how fragile life is. And we are seeing the ways in which we are not safe in the world.”

Every individual processes trauma differently, but Pearson offered some advice for people seeking ways to cope with experiencing hate:

Identify safe sources of support and community. This could include reaching out to friends, family, local organizations and support groups, networks within your work, churches or other means of community support.

Look for a therapist, if you want to. Finding a compatible therapist can take time — and that's ok. There's also stigma around therapy in some communities, but Pearson said it can be incredibly helpful to have that hour to focus on yourself. “That is also another symptom of racism that we don't really recognize, that we actually deserve that. We can have an hour of just talking about what's happening for us,” she said. Here's where to find affordable, culturally competent therapy in Bay Area and beyond.

Explore healthy coping skills. This might be in the form of journaling, art, taking a walk, talking to an elder in your community — the possibilities are endless.

Seek additional means of support. Here is where you can reach out for additional support and mental health resources: