‘A Defining Moment:’ Governor Kemp Signs Hate Crimes Bill Into Law

A bipartisan group of lawmakers gathered to watch Gov. Brian Kemp sign Georgia’s hate crimes bill into law.

Emma Hurt / WABE

Following outrage over the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, Georgia is no longer one of a handful of states without a hate crimes law. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law Friday, surrounded by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.

The law strengthens penalties for those who commit crimes against someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, mental and physical disabilities, among other identities. It also requires law enforcement to file reports of any such crimes, so that the state can begin tracking them.

The bill, H.B. 426, progressed quickly after national attention on Arbery’s murder. It had stalled in a Senate committee for more than a year, after narrowly passing the House last year.

Republican Gov. Kemp called Arbery’s killing a “horrific, hate-filled act of violence” before signing the bill.

“We saw injustice with our own eyes. Georgians protested to demand action, and state lawmakers rose to the occasion,” he said.

The man in jail for Arbery’s death, Travis McMichael, allegedly used a racial slur after shooting him while Arbery was jogging in coastal Georgia.

Kemp said the bipartisan bill passage was “the silver lining in these difficult times and stormy days.”

Democratic state Representative Calvin Smyre has been working on the hate crimes issue for decades and cosponsored the bill. “This is a defining moment in the history of our great state,” he said at the signing.

A previous hate crimes law in Georgia was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2004 for being too vague.

“My experience over the years has told me to never, never, never give up. And I’m the one that always believes in tolerance of one’s opinion, so if you work through your differences, you can get things accomplished,” he said. “We have differences of opinion, but you can work through your differences and find common ground.”

A disagreement in the Georgia Senate held up the bill late last week, as some Senate Republicans inserted language into the bill that would have added protections for first responders as well. After protests from Democrats and groups, including the ACLU, it was removed and inserted into a different bill, H.B. 838. A small group of protestors at the signing urged Kemp to veto that bill.

Democratic state Senator Harold Jones referenced that disagreement at the signing, addressing his colleague Republican state Senator Bill Cowsert, who led the push to add the protection for first responders. “It was just almost 7 days ago that [Sen. Cowsert] and I had a rough time in [the Senate] Judiciary [Committee], but yet here we are,” Jones said.

“The world now sees what Georgia is, what we’ve always known it to be.”

State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican, sponsored the bill.

“We are truly at an opportunity right now to show that Georgia is too great for hate and that unity rules the day in Georgia,” he said.

“We are unified here in Georgia today with the signing of H.B. 426, the Georgia Anti-Hate Crimes Act.”

For a deeper exploration of Ahmaud Arbery’s story, listen to WABE’s podcast, “Buried Truths.” Hosted by journalist, professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Hank Klibanoff, season three of “Buried Truths” explores the Arbery murder and its direct ties to racially motivated murders of the past in Georgia.