What is the difference between a hate crime and an assault? That’s a question Karen Sonilal has had to ponder, even as she recovers from her injuries.
Valentine’s Day afternoon was cold but sunny in Richmond Hill, Queens when Sonilal dropped off a gift for her nephew—a heart-shaped balloon and cupcakes. Now 24, she had moved to the neighborhood, known locally as Little Guayana, at the age of seven from Trinidad and Tobago, the two-island nation near Venezuela. As she drove with her partner, Pratima, along Rockaway Boulevard, they made dinner plans.
It was a moment of joy, but not for long.
As Sonilal drove across 124th Street, she said, a white Jeep abruptly jutted into her lane of traffic. She quickly hit her brakes, narrowly avoiding a crash, and honked at the driver. They made eye contact. She did not know him, but she saw he was a man of West-Indian decent, like her. He gave her the finger, which she returned. “I just saw his face and I see how enraged he is,” Sonilal said.
Their interaction could have ended there, but it didn’t.
The driver in the Jeep sped around her car and stopped in front of it to block her path. She honked again. With the windows in her old Camry too stiff to roll down, she cracked her car door open and motioned with her hand for him to move his car forward. The man—towering at what she remembers as around six-foot two-inches and 250 pounds—made his way toward her. “The anger in his face tells me something bad is about to happen,” she said. Before she could react, he was just a few feet away. He forcefully kicked the door frame into her foot. She screamed in disbelief and pain.
“I looked at him like, ‘Don’t you see you just hurt me?’ I’m looking for a little bit of, ‘I’m sorry,’ a little bit of remorse, but he’s looking at me like, ‘How dare you honk at me. How dare you say something?’ And he is looking at me with this dead look in his face.”
The man then walked back to his car, Sonilal said, and took out what looked like a gun. He put it in his pocket and turned to walk back. She pulled her door shut, threw the car into reverse, and sped backwards as her partner called the police. After ten blocks, they realized the Jeep had followed them—and was trying to run them off the road. In an attempt to get away, she turned down 110th Street, a block she used to live on.
“We were now alone on the street with this guy and I’m getting anxious thinking, ‘This guy could kill us right now,’” she said.
She veered into a former neighbor’s driveway. The Jeep honked and drove past. That gave Sonilal and her partner a chance to flee, though they feared he would circle around the block. The way he had kicked in the door made it hard to pry open, and when she finally got out and stood up, Sonilal felt immense pain in her foot and realized that she could not walk. With the help of Pratima, the two hobbled to the back of the former neighbor’s house for safety. The Jeep did come back around the block, honked again, and drove off. Ten minutes later, the police arrived.
The assault that afternoon has had a devastating impact on Sonilal. She has to walk with crutches as she waits for the muscle tears in her left foot to heal. Her medical bills are high from multiple X-rays. She is an architecture major at New York City College of Technology, but she can’t go to class. She can’t work.
Why did this man attack her? Sonilal has had a lot of time to consider that question, and she has come to a conclusion: “In my community there is a lot of toxic masculinity. There are a lot of men feeling like women are the lesser sex, or thinking that they have superiority.”
The attack, she now believes, was motivated by the fact that she is a woman. “If I was a grown man sitting in that car, he would have never gotten out of that Jeep, but because I am a woman, because he saw two women and he is probably three times my size, this is exactly why he felt he could come out and do that.”
And if that’s true, then the attack could be classified as a “Hate Crime.”
The FBI’s defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
As Sonilal recalls, the police asked her at the time if she wanted to report the incident as a hate crime. In the moment though, she said she was so shaken that she didn’t really think about it. She also had hoped it wasn’t a hate crime, motivated by her gender, she said. So she reported it as an assault, not a hate crime.
“Thinking about it now, though,” Sonilal said, “maybe 90 percent of it was because I am a woman. Maybe 100 percent.”
That’s a conclusion Mohamed Q. Amin agrees with. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Caribbean Equality Project, a Queens-based non-profit that “empowers and strengthens the marginalized voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people of Caribbean origin and descent,” according to its website. The organization was founded, Amin says, in response to anti-LGBTQ hate violence in Richmond Hill. And according to Sonilal, Amin and the Caribbean Equality Project has been an invaluable support system in the aftermath of the assault.
“This is an example of road rage, of toxic masculinity in our community,” Amin said. “But it is also a case of a couple being attacked based on their gender. Sonilal being a young woman, behind the wheel, it is itself empowering. That threatened his masculinity, and his response was violence.”
In their initial conversations, he said he did not speak with Sonilal about the possibility of reporting the act as a hate crime. But if Sonilal would want to pursue it as such, he would absolutely support her.
According to the NYPD website, a person can report a bias-incident at any point in an ongoing investigation. It is the responsibility of the police to determine if the situation is deemed to be a possible bias-motivated incident, requiring further investigation. Sonilal has yet to report the incident as a hate crime.
But reporting hate crimes is not always an easy thing for victims to do, particularly for women.
Hate crimes in general are on the rise in New York City. As of February 17th, 55 hate crimes were reported, according to a New York Times report, an uptick of 72 percent compared to the same period last year. And it’s a trend not limited to this year alone. In 2018, 351 incidents were reported in New York City, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. Crimes targeting Black and Jewish people had the sharpest increase, according to NYPD reports.
The city data follows a nationwide trend. The FBI data indicates that hate crimes have increased every year since 2014, reaching a high of 7,175 in 2017.
Hate crime data, however, is known to be extremely unreliable. According to Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a Professor and Chair of Criminal Justice Department at California State University Stanislaus, this is in part due to underreporting by victims. A hate crime report from 2017 by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that 54 percent of violent hate crimes went unreported.
Regarding gender-motivated hate crimes, many states do not even count gender as a protective category, and they are rarely prosecuted. “A lot of the focus on gender-motivated hate crimes is on women who are trans, and there is less interest and focus on gender-based hate crimes,” said Gerstenfeld. She pointed out though that these crimes can be counted in the category of domestic violence, so they are not completely ignored. It was not until 2009, that Congress amended the Hate Crime Statistics Act to include data for crimes motivated by gender and gender identity. According to the New York Police Department’s Citywide Hate Crime statistics, there were only seven gender-motivated hate crimes reported in 2018, out of 361 reported hate crimes.
“The more vulnerable groups,” Gerstenfeld said, “are less likely to report. “It depends on the community and victim and how comfortable they are speaking with the police.”
Sonilal believes this to be true among women in the Indo-Caribbean community. “When I told my grandma about it she was like, ‘Oh my god, Be careful,’” Sonalil said. Assaults like this rarely go reported in her community, she said, because women feel the police won’t be on their side, and that they will not have enough evidence to make their case.
Women sometimes back away from reporting because they do not receive support from within the community either, said Sonilal. “Their sense of fear—of this person rebelling against them, people not believing them, and people not being there for them—are the reasons why women do not report.”
In the hospital shortly after the assault, as Sonilal had her foot up on a chair getting wrapped, she remembers telling a woman working at the hospital, who was of Indian descent, what had happened. “You know, next time you have to leave it alone,” the woman responded.
“I was enraged,” Sonilal said. “I didn’t even say anything. It sucks because a lot of people have this mentality.”
For those women that do want to report an assault and pursue the incident as a hate crime, the legal process can be complicated.
In New York City, the responding police officer on the case is responsible for determining if “possibility exists that the offense was motivated by bias or prejudice,” according to the NYPD Patrol Guide, at which point the patrol supervisor notifies the commanding officer, who decides whether or not to refer the case to the Hate Crime Task Force to be investigated further.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair, an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Director at the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University, has written extensively about challenges of reporting gender-motivated hate crimes. According to Sinclair, victims can tell the police at any stage if they feel a crime may have been gender-motivated. “Ultimately though it is the district attorney’s office that decides what charges are going to be pressed, not the police,” Sinclair said.
Research shows that there is a lot of misunderstanding among law enforcement and district attorney offices about what constitutes a gender-motivated hate crime, Sinclair said. “There have been studies looking at district attorney and police attitudes and they show that many do not think that hate crimes include crimes against women. They have a very fixed prototype of what a hate crime is, which usually comes from where hate crime laws originated—with anti-lynching and anti-KKK laws,” said Sinclair. And thus cases that do not fit this conventional definition of a hate crime are less likely to be pursued as such.
And while the victim can ask to pursue a crime as a bias-incident, that requires, “more awareness of law and legal systems than most victims have,” Sinclair said.
In order for an incident to be recorded as a hate crime in the FBI hate crime database, according to the Hate Crime Statistics Act, a hate crime charge has to be filed by the district attorney, Sinclair said. And when incidences do not get reported as a hate crime, that has consequences. “We contribute to people having no idea what it is. If you just call it an assault, you are not treating the underlying issue that is contributing to the problem.”The FBI hate crime statistics also affect funding initiatives at the federal-level, Sinclair pointed out, and influences what the National Institute of Justice chooses to invest in for research and intervention efforts.
As Sonilal heals from her assault, she said she is lucky to have a network of support through local organizations, including the Caribbean Equality Project. At a benefit for the group in Jamaica, Queens on February 23rd, Sonilal was able to speak openly about the assault, just eight days after it happened. She shared her story in an affirming environment to more than 130 people, many of whom are LGBTQ folks, allies, activists, and organizers in the Caribbean community in Queens.
Working with the NYPD, meanwhile, Sonilal said she has already identified her attacker based on a series of photos. It’s been more than 15 days now though, and there have been no arrests. With the support of these community groups, Sonilal is asking the NYPD to speed up its investigation. “This violent man is still on the streets,” she said.
Despite everything, Sonilal says she remains hopeful, encouraged by small changes she sees in her community. “More women are speaking out against violence, and there are groups helping women do so,” she said. “The violence has always been there, but we are just now able to begin to highlight this issue.”