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Can the alleged Buffalo gunman be prosecuted under the Emmitt Till antilynching act?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The shooting in Buffalo comes less than two months after President Joe Biden signed legislation which bans lynching. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act allows hate crimes which result in death or serious bodily injury to be prosecuted as a lynching. So can the alleged Buffalo gunman be prosecuted under that new law? For that, we're joined by Adolphus Belk Jr., a professor of political science and African American studies at Winthrop University. Professor, I just want to start off by just asking you how you're feeling and thinking about what happened in Buffalo over the weekend.

ADOLPHUS BELK: It's another one of those heart-wrenching stories that seems to be on repeat in this country in all sorts of places - schools, grocery stores, religious institutions, movie theaters. And this one especially hits home because I went to undergraduate school in central New York, just a ways east of western New York, and had many good college friends who were from Buffalo and from that community. So my heart goes out to the people of the East Side and everything that they're enduring and will endure.

MARTINEZ: Now, federal prosecutors are already classifying this violent act of racism as a hate crime. How do you think that will affect the investigation and the prosecution of this case?

BELK: Well, I think that there are levels to how to bring a case forward. And already, you can see that the Erie County district attorney has filed first-degree murder charges. There's going to be some cooperation, I think, between the district attorney in Erie County and the state. But then you have the federal level of analysis and the possibility of bringing federal charges against the assailant. And that could involve some combination of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which was signed into law by the president back in March, or it could involve the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crime Act of 2009. So federal prosecutors would have different tools at their disposal to figure out how they want to pursue a case, given the evidence that they gather against the assailant.

MARTINEZ: You mention it would be a combination. Would they have to choose one or the other or, as you said, can they use a little bit of both?

BELK: Well, they would be able to bring him up on whatever charges they thought were applicable to the case at hand. The Emmett Till Act - you know, oftentimes, because of the name that's attached to that measure, there's a tendency to look backward and to think about lynching as it was exercised against Black and brown people and others who were targeted many, many years ago, when there is a clear attempt to deal with lynching as it's manifested today, especially with people who coordinate their attacks or attempted attacks with others. And so it's going to be important for prosecutors to determine if the assailant acted alone. Did he act with assistance? Who assisted him and how? And charges could be brought against others if it is determined that they helped him commit these acts.

MARTINEZ: So based on what we know so far - and I know it's very, very early, professor - can this qualify, possibly, as part of the Antilynching Act?

BELK: It's possible. And as you noted, it's early and we have to be very careful in how we discuss these things and analyze them so early in the process. But still, federal prosecutors would have different measures at their disposal, from the Emmett Till Antilynching Act to the Shepard and Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. And if one fails, they could turn to the other, in addition to existing laws that criminalize and provide punishments for the behavior that the assailant committed over the weekend.

MARTINEZ: And, professor, I think about what's happened just in the last few years. You think about what just happened this weekend; a 2015 shooting at a Black church in Charleston, S.C.; in 2019, Latinos being targeted at a Walmart in El Paso. Why do you think we're seeing what feels like a surge of racially motivated hate crimes?

BELK: And the attack at the Sikh temple outside of Wisconsin and a whole host of incidents.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. There's a list. Yeah, there's a list we could bring up. Yeah.

BELK: There is a long and macabre list of these incidents. And the data bears it out. According to statistics compiled by the FBI, there has been an increase in hate crimes in just the last year. And that's something that's been trending upward. And when we see white supremacists, like the assailant, who ascribe to white nationalism, replacement theory, there's this belief that racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities and others constitute a threat to the safety and stability of the white population in the United States. And folks, such as the assailant, will reach out, lash out at those who constitute the alleged offending culture.

Such white nationalist activity and resentment is triggered by increased political and economic competition from people of color, as well as increased economic hardship or stagnation. This is someone who reported being radicalized from his travels on the internet during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. And he went really deep into those things and became motivated, developed a deep hatred of people of color and religious minorities, especially Jewish folk.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

BELK: And so the danger here is in not treating the problem for what it is - white nationalism sparking domestic terrorism.

MARTINEZ: That's Adolphus Belk Jr., professor of political science and African American studies at Winthrop University. Professor, thank you very much.

BELK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.