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Local Leaders Decry Hate Crimes
By MATT COOPER
The Register-Guard, Springfield, Oregon, Mar. 26, 2003
"The week-old war in Iraq has pitted peace activists against military supporters, and has sparked fervid debates between conservatives, liberals - and nearly everyone in between. Now the conflict has spurred a war of words in Lane County about what constitutes a hate crime. On Tuesday about 20 local officials representing schools, law enforcement and the religious community, as well as local politicans gathered for a news conference in Springfield City Hall to announce that acts of ethnic and religious intolerance would not be tolerated."
"Their remarks were underscored by the arrest Monday of a Eugene man on a hate crime charge after he allegedly intimidated a woman who was wearing a turban. Police charged Jeffrey Marc Cohen, 28, of harassment after he pulled up next to the woman of Sikh faith. The man got out of his vehicle at 24th Avenue and Hilyard Street, approached the woman's car, then pointed both index fingers at her, pretending to shoot, said police spokeswoman Pam Olshanski. Cohen said he was merely giving a 'what's up' gesture, Police Chief Thad Buchanan said. But the woman felt her appearance precipitated the attack. 'Obviously, she was terrified,' Buchanan said."
"The incident - and Cohen's arrest - drew outrage from many around the state who heard about the case on a Portland radio station Tuesday. An overwhelming majority of listeners who called in to a K.X.L. talk show 'thought it was ridiculous to charge someone with a crime for pointing a finger at somebody,' said the show's host, Lars Larson. Listeners felt the charge was an example of 'extreme political correctness' that was conveniently timed to precede Tuesday's press conference, Larson said. That drew a heated response from Eugene human rights advocate Greg Rikhoff. 'That's a load of crap,' Rikhoff said. 'I defy anyone to have that happen to them or someone they care about and not see that as a disturbing or threatening element.' "
"According to Eugene police, when a victim believes that bias precipitated an incident, such as harassment or assault, officers may include bias in the charge, as they did with Cohen, Olshanski said. Bias brings a stiffer penalty. Kent Mortimore, chief deputy district attorney, said bias crimes are typically prosecuted as intimidation, with sentences of up to 30 months, depending on the severity of the incident and the offender's prior record. 'As soon as the Eugene police department provides us with the details of the investigation, we're going to see whether there's enough evidence to support a prosecution,' Mortimore said. 'If there is, we'll go for it.' "
"Tammam Adi, director of the Eugene-based Islamic Cultural Center, said there are more than 500 Arab-Americans and Muslims in the Eugene-Springfield community, and their fears of war-related backlash are legitimate. In the weeks before war was declared, the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American Islamic Relations observed a 'real spike' in hate crimes and harassment of Arab-Americans and Muslims across the country, spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said Tuesday from the capital. Since war's outbreak, hate crime incidents have been scattered, but at times, severe, Hooper said. The Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that federal authorities were investigating an explosion in a van parked outside the home of a Palestinian Muslim family as a possible hate crime."
"Hooper said backlash results from a mix of fierce pro-war rhetoric and an existing level of anti-Muslim sentiment, prompting a small minority to turn to hostile words or violence. Hooper lauded local officials for standing together in solidarity against racially motived intimidation. It 'sets the tone in the general community that these things won't be tolerated,' he said. 'Often bigots operate as if they're reflecting the majority of the people in the society. When you tell them that's not true, they may think twice.' "