Swastika-branding incident first to test new hate crimes law

An anti-hate symbol.

The Farmington, N.M., swastika-branding incident is the first test case for America's new hate crimes law. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Blake Emrys/Flickr)

The state of race relations between Navajo and Anglos in Farmington, N.M., may have hit low tide once more, thanks to the swastika-branding actions of three young men. According to Associated Press, the three white men attacked (after allegedly kidnapping) a mentally disabled 22-year-old Navajo man. They shaped a coat hanger into a swastika, heated it on a stove and branded the symbol into the Navajo man’s arm. Now the perpetrators are the first in the United States to be accused under the updated version of a 2009 hate crimes law.

Swastika-branding not the only damage

According to Farmington authorities, the horrific swastika-branding wasn’t all that the three men did to their victim. They also used markers to write various messages on the Navajo man’s body, including “KKK,” “White Power,” a pentagram and a graphic depiction of a penis. The actions of the offending trio have run afoul of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The offenders could face 10 years in prison if convicted. The sentence could be extended to life if the government can prove  kidnapping was involved in the swastika-branding incident.

Changes to hate crimes law paved the way

In its original form, U.S. law regarding hate crimes required the victim to be taking part in a federally protected activity such as voting or attending school in order for hate crime charges to get started. Recent changes, thanks to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Matthew Shepard Act for short), have eliminated that requirement, and the Farmington swastika-branding incident is the first case to be heard after the changes. Protection from violence based upon gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity are added civil rights protections by the law.

Pact to improve race relations

Just this month, Farmington leaders and elders of the Navajo Nation met at Farmington City Hall to sign a historic pledge in which both sides promise to work toward bettering race relations. The predominantly white city of Farmington has a decades-old history of conflict with the Navajo.

Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Chairman Duane “Chili” Yazzie recognized that only through education will violence be quelled. Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts said that while “there will always be people who just don’t get it,” the overall climate of race relations can change over time.


Associated Press

Media coverage when the swastika-branding first occurred


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