Russian leaders come to S.F. to tackle hate-crime issues

While hate-crime legislation exists in Russia, the country still has a long way to go in its enforcement. That seemed to be the majority view among some Russians visiting the Bay Area earlier this week.

"Our American colleagues underestimate how much the conditions in Russia stand in the way of a law-regulated society," said Nikolai Girenko, director of the National Minorities Rights Section, St. Petersburg Union of Scientists.

Girenko was one of 12 Russian law-enforcement officials, mayors, human rights workers and Jewish leaders who attended a weeklong seminar here on fighting hate crime.

Sponsored by the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal and the Central Pacific region of the Anti-Defamation League, the seminar included presentations by Jewish community organizations. In addition, the San Francisco Police Department, and more specifically, its Hate Crimes Unit, shared strategies.

In an afternoon session on Aug. 10, the opening day, Inspector Milanda Moore of the SFPD's Hate Crimes Unit gave an introduction on what constitutes a hate crime and what is protected by freedom of speech. She explained that under the First Amendment, even groups with repugnant views are allowed to assemble and express their views.

Protecting those groups "is not something we want to do, but we have to protect their First Amendment right to freedom of speech," she said.

Speaking through a pair of translators, the Russians explained how their bureaucracy makes enforcement of existing hate-crimes laws difficult.

Also, the very definition of a hate crime in Russia differs, said Galina Ovchinnikova, first pro-rector of the Juridical Institute of St. Petersburg's prosecutor's office. The definition is much hazier than that in the United States.

Furthermore, what complicates the process in Russia, is that when hate material is distributed, it must go to a committee that determines whether or not it is indeed inflammatory.

Often, the judges themselves are racist and choose which committee or member to send the material to, guaranteeing that it won't be judged hateful; therefore, no one will be blamed.

"Among the prosecutors, there is support of different ideologies," said Girenko. "Judges can predict very easily which 'expert' will get the material. They can easily send obviously nationalist material to a racist."

Another problem unique to Russia is that extremist groups sometimes justify their right to distribute hate literature by saying that to not allow dissent is to return to Stalinist times.

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the ADL, pointed out that how authorities deal with hate crimes is only part of the equation; how the public reacts to them is equally important.

"Law is one thing," Girenko said. "Public opinion is another. There is a huge gap."

Earlier that morning, Tom Martinez, a formerly active member of the white supremacist group The Order, addressed the group. Martinez had a change of heart, and infiltrated the group to help the FBI bring down its leader.

Over the weekend, the group toured San Francisco. And on Monday, the sessions continued, with the delegation listening to talks given by representatives from the San Francisco District Attorney's office, as well as a panel of police officers representing different minority groups.

The group also visited Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, which is partnered with the Jewish community of Borovichi. The mayor and a deputy of the city council from the Russian city were both in the delegation.

Michael Jacobs, past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, spoke to the group about how to build consensus in the Jewish community and the role of minority groups in building up a civil society.

"This has been quite a remarkable project," said Pnina Levermore, executive director of the BACJRR, on Monday. "The participants have said they've been impressed with the interest, care and attention paid by our highest level representatives."

In September, representatives from the local police department and the Jewish community will go to Russia to continue the dialogue and train some law enforcement officers there.

"This is very important and interesting," but most of all, "useful," said Leonid Lvov, director of the Light Center for Human Rights in St. Petersburg.

The Americans felt the same.

"There are a lot of similarities," said Inspector Anna Brown.

Overall, Levermore said the Russian delegation felt equipped to go back and effect change.

The Russians saw that "this is not a superficial show of politeness. This a real effort to lay bare the way things work here to attempt to equip this delegation to make changes," said Levermore. "They're taking home with them the building blocks to transfer what works in the system here over there."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."