Piotr Godzisz: hate crime is a universal problem, but we are lacking a unified response

Dr Piotr Godzisz is an interdisciplinary social researcher who has been working in the field of hate crime and human rights for the past eight years. He is currently a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University and will hold a keynote speech at the online conference “Joining forces: together against hate crime” taking place on September 24. Before the conference, we took time to ask him a few questions about his field of expertise. 

Piotr, you are a researcher, but you also have had many other roles within the field of hate crime. How did you become involved in this topic and what have your experiences been like?

What brought me to this topic was a strong interest in helping the victims of unjustified violence based on hatred and prejudice due to their personal characteristics, such as sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. I wanted to understand the reasons for human rights violations and ways of responding to them.

I have worked in different sectors: at an NGO, in academia and at a governmental organisation. I wanted to learn about the different struggles and perspectives of people working in different sectors, because, if we see each other as partners who could cooperate, then I think this is the way to achieve sustainable and long lasting change.

Dr Piotr Godzisz

How big of an issue is hate crime, or more broadly, hateful attitudes in Europe at the moment?

This is a very tricky question because there is no one single way of measuring hate across Europe and there is no one single definition of hate crime.

First, every country measures hate crime differently, because most don’t have a definition of a hate crime. Some countries count everything that is legally classified as a hate crime because there is a specific criminal law provision that is related to a hate offence, like racist threats. In other countries, hate crimes are based on the perception of either a victim or police officer or somebody else who is involved in the case. Sometimes the hate element can be added to any offence and the police are able to capture that in their statistics. For that, it’s good to have a working definition of hate crime, that is a crime committed with a biased motive. But every country does it differently. That’s why we have really disparate statistics.

Second, years of research and work with victims have shown us that most hate crimes are never reported. Some surveys will tell you that as many as 70 percent of LGBTI people have experienced some sort of violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, but the state shows in total of 10 incidents in the report. What happened with the hundreds of other incidents? It’s the same with other minority groups. For example, research on antisemitism shows that many Jews in Europe don’t report incidents because they don’t think it will change anything. Only a small fraction of hate crimes are officially reported to police or other institutions. There is this dark figure of crimes that is unaccounted for. And that’s a problem, because if the state doesn’t know, it’s hard to respond.

The situation is complicated, but how could we make it better? What do you see as the key points in tackling hate crime?    

Hate crime is everywhere. There is a need for a stronger international response against hate crime. Because hate crime is not a national problem. It’s not a regional problem. It’s a universal problem.

I am really happy to see the strong stance that the leader of the European Commission took in her State of the Union address. The EU is already doing a lot, but it can do more to fight hate crime. Ursula von der Leyen said that she will push for extending the list of hate crimes at the EU level to include all types of hate speech and hate crime and all bias motivations, including racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, disablism or transphobia. I think it’s a great move to provide a new, common European standard, a common understanding of what hate crime is and how to fight it. There will definitely be opposition from member states concerned about sovereignty but let’s start these discussions.

In devising the responses, we need to make sure to keep the victim in mind. We need to think: Who are the victims? Where are they? How can we reach them? What do they need from us? What kind of support? Once we learn that, we can plan around.

Additionally, we’re also facing the problem of hate speech, which is virulent in many member states. Since 2016, the EU has been working with big IT companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter and recently also TikTok on responding to illegal hate speech online, and I see this as a really good practice internationally. But what about political hate speech? This is a big problem too, if you have a minister or a parliamentarian spreading hate and fake news, e.g. about migrants, Jews or sexual education.

What is more important when tackling hate crime? Is it good, strong and clear legislation or the attitudes in society, the will to deal with this issue?

There are a number of elements that need to work together if we want to have a good response to hate crime. We need tools to fight the existing criminality, but also tools to prevent it. Tools to respond to something that has already happened, in my opinion, are a priority. And among these tools, the first thing that we should look at, is criminal law, even if it may be the last thing that we should use. The law should cover all criminal offences that can be motivated by bias and all the characteristics that are relevant in the country. Then, the law should clearly stipulate that penalties for a hate crime are higher than for a comparable offense without bias motivation.

When it comes to enforcement of the law, there should be training for police officers and for other institutions and organisations to make sure that they understand what hate crime is, understand the consequences for victims, understand which kind of groups are most often victimised. And that there should be constant communication with these groups to build trust. This is something that needs to be emphasised, because the groups that are targets of hate crime, are often the ones who are overpoliced and underprotected, for example Roma people or migrants.

The third element of that response should definitely be education for the public. Building the culture of openness and acceptance. It’s important to raise awareness on what hate crime is and how you as a member of the society, can react to hate crime when you see it. How not to be a bystander. But potential offenders must also know that what they’re doing is not just offensive, it’s an abuse.

Finally, we need to make sure that when you’re attacked, you can get help quickly and effectively. That you report and someone takes it from there: the police, medical examination and medical help, legal support, psychological support, perhaps housing services. These services need to be in place to help relieve the negative effects of the crime which are often harsher than other crimes.

Why is it so important to treat hate crimes differently than other offenses?

Hate crimes are distinct from otherwise motivated criminal offences, because they have consequences for not just the immediate victim, but also their friends and family, the people who share that particular characteristic, that motivated the attack. And hate crimes also have consequences for the entire society.

Hate crimes escalate. They may go in waves from one community being attacked to another community being attacked. Sometimes one event can lead to a pogrom, it has a knock on effect. And altogether, what we have then is a tense social conflict.

Hate crime can have very strong mental health and social consequences for the victims. Hate crimes are often repetitive, many people are victimised on a daily basis. One research among recent migrants shows that 58 percent of respondents had at least one symptom of a post-traumatic stress disorder, the highest level among Africans, and that was correlated with the experience of hate crime. And that affects your daily life. If you’re afraid to go out on the street, how can you meet friends, go shopping, go to school or work? If you’re bullied at school, your grades may drop, you may start taking substances and become the problem kid. Hate crime can also be felt vicariously. When you hear from friends and family who share your characteristics that they have been attacked, or you read something on the news, you’re thinking: “Am I gonna be next?”

Solidarity protest in Warsaw after LGBTQ+ activist Margot was arrested on August 7th. Photo: Rafal Milach

As a Polish person who has researched hate speech and hate crime, how do you view all of that is happening in Poland with regard to LGBTI issues? 

I was absolutely heartbroken seeing the clashes between police and the public after the LGBTI activist Margot was arrested. I cannot believe that the state is silent seeing the spread of the so-called “LGBT-free zones” and allows for homophobic lies to be spread in towns by a right-wing foundation.

This hate speech works and society responds to it: you can see it in the changes of the comments on the Internet, the types of graffiti on buildings, as well as in the increased number of people, who are violently attacked on the street for being who they are. There is not a week without a report of someone being attacked.

Since 2016, most of the work that has been done over the years around hate crime and hate speech in Poland has been going to waste. And this is why I am heartbroken, because I have been engaged in training police officers and prosecutors in Poland for years, and now police officers are forced to go out on the streets to protect hate mongering campaigners and to brutally disperse spontaneous gatherings of LGBTI people who are protesting against this violence. And the government does not acknowledge that the majority of the society is against these kinds of hateful statements. Our research shows that the majority of people support higher penalties for anti LGBTI hate crimes along with other kinds of hate crimes. We have the government and the society standing on two sides of the barricade and the police and LGBT people are between that.

But there are also positive sides: The LGBTI community is resilient and the grass-roots organising is amazing. There are many new, different, sometimes unorthodox groups and initiatives, including in really small towns, often run by straight, cisgender allies. And this is reassuring.

It seems that societies everywhere, not just in Poland, are becoming more polarised. What do you think the future will bring? 

I’m not one to speculate, but there are processes which are visible and these processes have been constant for a number of years. One thing I’m worried about is the increasing mobilisation of fundamentalist groups in Europe. They are often linked to the Kremlin, increasingly well connected and very well funded. Their goal is to reverse the progress we’ve achieved in terms of women’s and LGBTI rights and this is scary, because they use our language, the language of the rights, to promote anti-rights messages.

On the other hand, I do believe that the organising goes well also on the side of human rights. There is a visible involvement of some governments and various allies – the people who themselves are not at risk of being victimised, but they are supporting people who are. It’s important to see that these allies can be anywhere. They could be members of families, friends, but also within government structures, police, prosecution services. It’s important to work with them and let them do their work, because they are the people who may drive the change from within the system.

The case law is also encouraging. There have been many landmark decisions from the European Court of Human Rights on hate speech and hate crime. Recently also in Lithuania. So the standard is setting and states will need to observe it.

Also the attitudes are changing. In the majority of European countries, the openness of the society has been improving, for example, for LGBTI people to live their life as they want. The support for registered partnerships or marriage equality has been increasing all across the board. And even if there are people who want to stop it and oppose it, thankfully, they are not winning this battle.

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