ATLANTA — On the last day of the legislative session, Gov. Brian Kemp signed hate crimes legislation into law.
The “vigilante” shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed, Black man, in Brunswick by three white men reignited the desperate calls for protections against bias-motivated crimes in the state of Georgia.
The state has been without a hate crimes law for nearly two decades and was one of the few remaining states without hate crimes legislation.
Georgians witnessed a “horrific hate-filled act of violence,” Kemp said Friday.
“We saw injustice with our own eyes,” he said. "Georgians protested to demand action and state lawmakers … rose to the occasion.”
The final hate crimes legislation, House Bill 426, is being praised under the Gold Dome as a true act of bipartisanship. House members Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, and Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, introduced the bill last session which passed in the House but sat in Senate committee for more than a year.
After the push of House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Senate Republicans recognized the importance of passing hate crimes legislation at this point in Georgia’s history.
"Under this Gold Dome, there are plenty of disagreements and division,” Kemp said. "But today, we stand together as Republicans and Democrats, Black and white, male and female, from rural, urban and suburban communities to affirm a simple but powerful motto: Georgia is a state too great to hate.”
Smyre, the longest serving member of the Georgia General Assembly, has called the hate crimes legislation the “finest moment” in his 46 years of serving and said on the day it was signed he was “filled with joy and fulfillment.”
“Ahmaud Arbery’s death will not be in vain,” he said.
Ralston said he hoped the legislation brings some justice to Arbery’s family.
“I hope that (Arbery's mother) takes some comfort that this General Assembly has responded to her loss in this way,” he said Friday.
But the moment may have been more fulfilling for lawmakers than Arbery’s family and protesters. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who was originally scheduled to attend the hate crimes law signing, chose not to attend after lawmakers passed a bill extending protections for police officers.
As part of the bargaining chip to pass hate crimes legislation, lawmakers passed another bill, House Bill 838, that protects “first responders” — firefighters, medics and police officers — from crimes discriminating against them because of their occupation.
“Though we stand in full support of all law enforcement, we believe House Bill 838 is more dangerous to our community than House Bill 426 is good,” Cooper-Jones said in a statement. "To see the legislature prioritize House Bill 838 instead of repealing citizens arrest is heartbreaking and does not do justice for my son."
A small group of protesters at the hate crimes legislation signing called for Kemp to veto House Bill 838 that adds protections for law enforcement.
Hannah Gebresilassie has been protesting for 29 consecutive days. A protester with the Promote Positivity Movement, Gebresilassie said while lawmakers are making history by signing the hate crimes legislation, they are also making history by signing the bill that expands law enforcement protections.
“We want to see this be a truly historic day,” she said Friday. “At the end of the day, they’re giving immunity to officers in ways that they don’t even do for their citizens. The people passing these bills are protecting officers in ways they don’t even protect their citizens, their health care workers, their educators, and people like me and you.”