Civil rights lawyer Frederick Brewington hosts a discussion at Hofstra University about the effect of vigilantism on people of color. // Photo courtesy of Hofstra Law School.
In honor of Civil Rights Day, the Center for Race, Culture and Social Justice, Center for Civic Engagement and Hofstra Cultural Center hosted a Rights Day panel civics on Wednesday, February 16.
The panel was held to discuss the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which stemmed from the creation of the 13th Amendment, the founding of the Black Codes, and the KKK Act of 1871. The two guest speakers, Frederick K. Brewington, attorney for the civil rights, and Mark C. Niles, professor of law at Hofstra University, discussed the historical and current implications of vigilantism against people of color.
According to Cornell Law School, vigilantism “describes the actions of a single person or group of people who claim to enforce the law but lack the legal authority to do so.”
“I strongly believe that we should not be immune to the discomfort of our history or our present,” said Philip Dalton, professor of writing and rhetorical studies and director of the Center for Civic Engagement.
Dalton cited the murders of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, two black men targeted by white men. Additionally, Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three people during a racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has been used as evidence of racially motivated vigilantism in today’s society.
The roundtable began with a historical overview of New York State’s civil rights history and civil rights laws.
“There are all kinds of issues of racial discrimination and racial violence long before we get to civil war,” Niles said.
“Beyond the black and white racial issues and the ways civil rights issues have addressed things like sexual orientation and disability,” Niles said. “When we talk about civil rights, we’re not just talking about race, although that may have been their foundation.”
Students found that learning about these laws gave them a better understanding of how they are implemented.
“Seeing the specific laws that [dealt] with things I generally already know has been helpful,” said Criminology and Public Policy student Sarah Holmes. “I think it kind of reiterates my interest in the law because that’s where ultimately all the decisions [are] made.”
Based on the increase in hate crimes since 2019 and their association with vigilantism against people of color, Niles explained the circumstances surrounding the first hate crime laws passed in 1968, titled USC 245 Violent Interference with Federal Protected Rights.
“Congress has made it a federal crime to use force to willfully interfere with a person because of race, color, religion, national origin, or because the person was participating in an activity protected by the federal government,” Niles said.
Students at the event wondered how people within these groups could fully protect themselves legally.
“How to fight blatant racism and Islamophobia? How do we fight it in the law? said undecided freshman Zainab Mozawalla, who is advocating for Eid al-Fitr to be a public holiday in her school district.
A federal hate crime is an underlying crime with the added aspect of proving the motivation was “based on racial animosity,” according to Niles. While it is essential to have laws that address hate crimes, Niles explained that it is difficult for prosecutors to prove that a person has committed a crime motivated by hate for one of the notions set out. above.
Brewington discussed real-life situations, starting with an anecdote of a customer, Mr Benny, who was waiting outside a bar that was closed due to a fight. When the police arrived, instead of approaching the individuals responsible for the fight, they advanced towards Mr. Benny’s group of friends.
During the encounter, Mr. Benny was punched in the body and thrown onto the concrete sidewalk, causing him internal and external injuries. Benny and his friends were arrested and charged with “obstructing government administration, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct”, according to Brewington.
Although the charges against Mr. Benny have been dismissed in their entirety, he is left with the difficulty of proving that the officer’s actions were based on racial discrimination.
“Judges are challenged. They must be challenged. We need to challenge the systems and institutions that allow the perpetuation of systemic problems,” Brewington said. “If you are not confronted with the realities that our history brings to us, you are simply going to allow it to happen.”