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Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

Ellison looks to tackle hate crime through community, law enforcement and legislative responses

ST PAUL — With the 2020 legislative session still months away, state lawmakers are looking for solutions to address what they consider an urgent problem: rising levels of hate crime.

At a forum with political and community leaders on Wednesday, Nov. 6, in St. Paul, Democratic State Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office is looking to community leaders, lawmakers and law enforcement for solutions. Wednesday's summit was part of a series Ellison is hosting across the state.

According to the most recently available data from the FBI, hate crimes across the country spiked by 17% in 2017, the third straight year to see a rise nationally. The three most common biases motivating hate crimes were racial bias (60%), religious bias (21%) and sexual orientation (16%).

But even the FBI's statistics may underestimate the numbers, speakers said Wednesday. Minnesota state Rep. Hodan Hassan, a Democrat from Minneapolis, said she has heard from constituents who have been victimized, but don't feel safe reporting to law enforcement. As a Muslim woman of color, Hassan said she, too feels anxiety that she will be targeted.

"I'm afraid of being me," she said.

Though her hijab makes her more visible to those with anti-Muslim biases, she said taking it off would equate to "taking off a part of my identity," but wouldn't get at the root of the problem.

"There's a lot of fear and anxiety, and rightly so, because people are being targeted for just being who they are," she said.

Minnesota's state Rep. Frank Hornstein, another Democrat from Minneapolis, hopes to address at least part of the issue with legislation in 2020. He is working to write a bill to address what he sees as some fatal flaws in Minnesota's hate crime law and incident reporting methods, as well as update police bias training, which has not been changed since 1990.

"A few things have changed in 30 years," he said.

He hasn't yet priced out how much his legislation could cost the state, but he doesn't foresee it being a "particularly expensive bill." Even with a state Legislature under divided party control, he said the issue shouldn't be partisan.

"We're talking about people feeling safe in their communities," he said. "I think that's something we can all get behind."

Amid the already difficult territory of prosecuting hate crime are the even murkier waters of hate speech. Take, for instance, the Nazi swastika drawn in chalk in Edina on Saturday, or radical, prejudiced and threatening posts on social media.

There is little law enforcement or prosecutors can do in these situations. In the Edina case, the juvenile who admitted to the crime will not be charged with a crime because they did not cause permanent property damage. And online, First Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk said Wednesday that "the First Amendment is always present."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, is a frequent target of online harassment. She said Wednesday that she'll "be fine," but she worries about "the millions of Muslims and black women who do not have the same protections as me."

Even if these cases can't be criminally prosecuted, Ellison said "it's not as if we don't have any tools."

Take the Edina case: Ellison said, "Clearly, that kid is getting some messages that are not all right," but the community can step in to help snuff out prejudice.

"That's where we're going to get our prevention from anyway," he said.

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