Was a Robbery in Federal Way the First Hate Crime of the 2020 Election Season?

by Jack Russillo

Content Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of racist violence.  

Hate crimes are known to peak in election years, especially in the weeks preceding and following the election. In the United States in 2016, the five days with the highest number of reported hate crimes all occurred within a week after the election, according to a study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

In Seattle, one-seventh of all hate crimes in 2016 took place in November, more than double the amount from the same month in the previous year, a non-election year. Across the country, the final months of that year saw the highest number of hate crimes since 2008. In the two weeks after Donald Trump’s presidential election, the daily average of hate crimes nearly doubled. No hard figures are available yet for the 2020 election, but the immigrant rights organization America’s Voice tracks documented hate incidents that have occurred since Trump’s election in an online map

“I think that we’re dealing with a number of things, historically, but even more highlighted under the Trump administration,” said Anita Whitfield, King County’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer. “Fear of difference, fear of law, fear of perceived position. I think that there is probably a lot more bias-based activity than anybody knows about … in the current environment, it really feels as if there has been an official okay, openly letting people know that they are unwelcome, minimized, or disliked.”

A survey released by Safehome.org in 2019 shows that nearly 60% of reported hate crimes are based in racial or ethnic bias, with Black people facing 49% of those offenses. All told, Black people are victims of nearly a third of hate crimes that occur in the U.S. According to the survey, more than half of hate crime offenders are white.

The Safehome survey notes that in Seattle — the U.S. city with the third-highest increase in hate crimes nationally between 2013 and 2017 — just over half of reported hate crimes were racially-motivated events. 

Hate crimes, which were previously called “malicious harassment” under Washington State law, occur when someone injures, threatens, or damages property based on perceptions of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or mental, physical, or sensory disability. In 2019, the State Legislature changed the title of the offense in response to the fact that “since 2015, Washington State has experienced a sharp increase in malicious harassment offenses.”

On Tuesday October 27, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed hate crime charges against two men for an incident in Federal Way during which a Black man was assaulted. Eric Dean Wise, 33, and Travis Ryan Phillips, 34, were also charged with first-degree robbery and are being held on $500,000 bail. The victim was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. 

According to court documents, the Black man was driving his black BMW sedan and after being involved in a car accident in which he rear-ended the attackers’ vehicle, Wise and Phillips chased him in their car “for like 10 miles.” After, they beat the victim inside his own car and yelled racial slurs, then dragged the man out of his car and continued to beat him while he was on the ground, according to a witness who was alerted to the incident from his home nearby after hearing shouts. The defendants then took the victim’s wallet and shoes and drove away from the scene before a Federal Way police officer stopped their vehicle and found the two men with “blood on their hands,” which prompted the police intervention that eventually led to their arrest.

“When questioned about it, [Phillips] proudly proclaimed he did these crimes because the victim was a [B]lack man,” prosecutors wrote in the charges. “This was a brutal hate crime. These defendants are a threat to our community.”

A GoFundMe page was created to collect donations to assist with the victim’s medical bills.

The incident is the 46th hate crime filed in 2020 by the King County Prosecutor’s Office. With two months to go in the year, the figure is already higher than the 37 and 29 cases that were filed in 2019 and 2018 respectively, according to the county prosecuting office. 

The arraignment for the two defendants, who each have at least a dozen previous criminal convictions, was scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 9 at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.

“We are truly disturbed by this latest attack in Federal Way — and it’s an indication that instances of violent racism are on the rise,” said Imraan Siddiqi, the executive director of CAIR-WA, the state branch of the country’s largest Islamic civil liberties group, in an interview shortly before the election. “There was a sharp rise in hate violence surrounding the 2016 election, and marginalized communities should be on alert for an uptick of harassment and violence.”

Many hate crimes are not reported for various reasons, according to a study released in 2019 by the Office of the City Auditor. In a survey sent out for the study, nearly a third of respondents said that they knew about a hate crime that had never been reported. Respondents also said that fear of revealing immigration status, fear of retaliation by the offender, limited English proficiency, and the perception that law enforcement would be ineffective were all reasons for not reporting the incident. 

The number of hate crimes that are reported in Seattle has more than tripled since 2012, while the number of cases that advance to prosecution have increased only slightly, according to the City Auditor’s study.

An ongoing case involving the beating of a Hispanic teenager in Skagit County in March by a white acquaintance is one such case that involves elements of a hate crime, but is not being prosecuted as one. Even though racial and homophobic slurs were used throughout the premeditated attack, Skagit County officials did not deem the case a hate crime.

“The bar is high … There is a lot that occurs that falls far below that bar,” said Whitfield. “I think in Washington State, the term crime, how we define crime, is around a reasonable expectation of physical harm or harm to property. Just like discrimination laws, there are high bars. I do think that people should be charged and convicted and dealt with accordingly, but I don’t think that is the cure or the fix.” 

Hate crimes can be reported to the Seattle Police Department and Mutual Aid for local BIPOC is available through COVID-19 Mutual Aid -Seattle (you can also email covid19mutualaidsea@gmail.com to request or offer assistance). More information about King County’s efforts to combat hate and bias crimes is available in the Coalition Against Hate and Bias section of King County’s Equity and Social Justice website.

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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