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Assembly passes support for hate crimes statute update

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There were some tense moments at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting Tuesday night, regarding a resolution of support for House Bill 198 in the Alaska Legislature, which would add gender identity and sexual orientation as a protected class to the law that allows for increased sentences for people who commit hate crimes.

Assembly President Kelly Cooper called the meeting to a halt at one point during public comment on the resolution. 

Tammie Willis, of Sterling, is one of several people who spoke in favor of the resolution. She talked about her experiences finding a threatening note with gay slurs on her truck, having a rock shatter her windshield and being attacked at her home.   

“On December 9, things escalated to include an assault in my home, where I was repeatedly cut with a knife and punched until almost my entire left side was covered in bruises,” Willis said. “It took 20 staples and two stitches to put me back together and almost a month for the bruises to heal.”

After Willis’ testimony, Assemblyman Jesse Bjorkman questioned whether Willis was lying about being attacked.

“I respect you as a person and then, because of that, I feel it’s only fair that you know what people are saying,” Bjorkman said. “So I’m going to ask you these questions because they’re things that have been asked of me and things that I’ve been told. There’s an accusation out there that the handwriting on the note and your own handwriting that was put on the note is very similar. How do you respond to that?”

“It’s not true,” Willis said.

President Cooper called a recess, which lasted a few minutes. When the assembly returned, Cooper called Willis back to the mic, after letting her know she did not have to answer any questions she did not feel were appropriate.

“Your question is exactly why people in the LGBTQ community don’t come forward and report the assaults and the violence that they face. It’s because people would rather dismiss their experience than believe it could happen in their community,” Willis said.

Several assembly members expressed reservations about the resolution. Here’s Assemblyman Brent Hibbert.

“When a crime is committed against one person or another, whether they’re gay or whether they’re not, it’s still a crime and I think that it should be the same punishment. Because once we start singling out different groups, I think that’s when the division comes and the tolerance goes away,” Hibbert said.

HB 198 would not create special protections for LGBTQ people. It would allow for additional sentencing for crimes that are shown to target someone based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. 

Assemblyman Tyson Cox objected to hate crimes statutes in general.

“Where do we start and where do we stop? And why are we making these hate crime rules when there’s going to be other classes that we would maybe need to add to it? Do we add 18, do we add 20? I, personally, don’t support hate crime legislation at all. I don’t believe it to be that effective,” Cox said.

Alaska already has a hate crimes statute that covers a person’s race, sex, color, creed, physical or mental disability, ancestry and national origin.

Bjorkman and Assemblyman Norm Blakely said they know what it feels like to be bullied or mistreated but didn’t think being a protected class would have prevented those instances. 

“On the playground when I was in elementary school, there were a lot of bullies. Bullies weren’t OK then, they’re not OK now,” Bjorkman said. “I remember one particular day I was in fourth grade. And I was a fat kid, not particularly popular, kind of a nerd. Kids would get in my face and say, ‘Do something. Do something, Fatty.” So one day I did. Had a consequence for doing that.”

“I have had lots of incidents in my life where people didn’t care for me or how I looked or I was too poor, I was too stupid, all kinds of things,” Blakely said. “I think those are things in life that you have to figure out, work your way through. And figure out that regardless of what happens with the law or something, you’re not going to eliminate this in our society.”

President Cooper and assemblymen Hal Smalley, Ken Carpenter, Willy Dunne and Brent Johnson were in favor of the resolution, Johnson asking to be added as a co-sponsor during the meeting.

“Whether or not this is going to exactly solve a problem, the people have come forward and they’ve said, ‘Hey, we want you to support us. We want you to pass this bill to support us, to help give us protection. So at the very least we’re reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, we want to help you in your situation,’” Johnson said.

Support for House Bill 198 ultimately passed five to four with assembly members Bjorkman, Blakeley, Cox and Hibbert voting against the resolution.

The next meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will be March 17 in Soldotna.

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