Point Austin: Hate Crimes Require Sparks Before They Ignite

Who’s holding the guns?

Photo by Getty Images

From 2005-2020, now-retired Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King wrote about city and state politics from a progressive perspective in his weekly column, “Point Austin.” We’re pleased to bring back his column whenever he’s inspired to tackle the state we’re in.

It’s been a banner year for hate crimes.

The most notorious crimes have been personal, individual, and violent. Others, often less infamous, are public, official, and political – but they in fact serve to create the cultural groundwork, and the excuses, for individual acts of violence.

Recent national headlines reported the killing of Lauri Carleton, a businesswoman in Cedar Glen, California, who was murdered over a rainbow flag. Travis Ikeguchi – reportedly not the first person to be mindlessly outraged by Carleton’s simple sign of LGBTQ solidarity – took offense at a flag hung outside Carleton’s shop and tore it down. When Carleton came out to retrieve her property and confront Ikeguchi, he didn’t stop at boorish argument. He took out a gun and shot her dead.

Carleton’s murder happens to be a California story, but we don’t have to look very far from Austin to find a similar crime. On June 2, Akira Ross was murdered outside a Cedar Park gas station, seemingly for the offense of existing while gay. According to news reports and the word of family and friends, Ross was pumping gas when she was confronted by Bradley Stanford, who apparently objected to the sight of Ross and her girlfriend. He brandished a gun, and while someone was calling 911, Stanford exchanged a few angry words with Ross and then shot her dead.

Friends said Stanford had been yelling anti-gay slurs before the shooting, and Ross’s father, Anthony Hill, told the Statesman’s Claire Osborn, “She gets out of the car, and he starts calling her gay slurs for no reason.” Hill continued, “Losing a daughter is like swallowing a razor blade. … Nobody wants to deal with that kind of pain.”

It would be comforting to dismiss such incidents as isolated, but instead, they are increasingly commonplace. According to a recent report produced by the Anti-Defamation League and GLAAD, nationwide from June 2022 to June 2023, there were more than 350 incidents expressing anti-LGBTQ+ hate. That includes more than 300 incidents of harassment, 40 of vandalism, and 11 of assault. (Many of the recorded incidents also included evidence of anti-semitism or racism.) And the total number includes only documented incidents; for various reasons, many such acts are unreported or can’t be officially confirmed. By the time this column is published, there will be more of the same dreary headlines, from Austin, or Cedar Glen, or Jacksonville.

Indeed, the lack of consistent reporting across the country is reflected in the Texas statistics. The Department of Public Safety reported that in 2022, “Texas reached a new peak of at least 549 documented hate crimes across the state, with over 56 percent of hate crimes in 2022 targeting LGTBQ+ and Black people.” Hate crimes against LGTBQ+ people, the Texas Observer reports, occur more frequently than any other category. Moreover, many local jurisdictions fail to report hate crimes to the DPS.

The murder of Akira Ross recalls an earlier local hate crime, the 2011 murder of Norma Hurtado and her mother, Maria. José Avilés objected to the intimate relationship between Norma and his daughter, Lidia – he came looking for Lidia at the Hurtado home, and when Norma and Maria answered the door, he shot them both dead. Before he came to their house that night, Avilés had repeatedly threatened to kill Norma.

Ten years before she was murdered, Norma had been a student at what was then Johnston High School. Austin author Doug Greco had been one of her teachers; he recalls her “standing in front of [his] desk with her athletic build, confident smile, deep brown eyes.” In recent weeks, family and friends of Akira Ross have been sadly recalling similar personal memories.

The Hurtado murders are partly the subject of Greco’s new book, To Find a Killer: The Homophobic Murders of Norma and Maria Hurtado and the LGBT Rights Movement. There’s no mystery to “finding” who killed the Hurtados — the following year, Avilés was convicted of capital murder and received an automatic life sentence. But Greco, an experienced political organizer, analyzes the murder in the context of a much larger, culture-wide context of gender, racial, and class conflicts that fueled and amplified the seemingly blind hatred that motivated Avilés.

Greco notes that in 2010-2011, there had been a wave of suicides among young gay people as well as a spike in anti-gay hate crimes. The accumulation of those incidents in turn generated broader advocacy for LGBT rights, greater public acceptance of those rights – and the self-evident truth that LGBT people have the right to live without fear of harassment or violence.

But if the community at large can be moved to greater acceptance, it can also be exhorted to hatred, harassment, and violence. We have recently seen plenty of exhortation, not only from extremist individuals and organizations, but from public officials and others who should know better – or who do know better, but don’t care.

Consider just the recent session of the Texas Legislature, which devoted almost no time or energy to the real crises facing the state – climate change, gun violence, deteriorating health care and education — instead finding plenty of time and new ways to demonize gay and transgender people. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at one point Texas legislators were considering more than 100 proposed bills that would undermine transgender health care, ban gay cultural expression, or prevent transgender youth from participating in sports. Many of the proposed bills failed to pass, but those enacted included bans on health care for transgender youth, vague restrictions on drag shows as “sexually explicit,” and increased restrictions on schools and libraries that deign to acknowledge the existence of gay or transgender persons.

Texas is now notorious for these kinds of hate laws, but they have become a vanity obsession for right-wing legislators nationwide. Their bills are inevitably accompanied by zealous platitudes about “protecting the children” and faux-religious sanctimony, but their fundamental intent – largely successful, whether or not the bills pass – is to inflame public passions against already marginalized and endangered minority groups. And those unhinged passions are inevitably put into action against people like Lauri Carleton, Norma Hurtado, and Akira Ross.

In the days following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago journalist Mike Royko wrote a blistering column about those responsible for King’s murder. “They can’t catch everybody,” Royko wrote, “and Martin Luther King was executed by a firing squad that numbered in the millions.”

“The man with the gun did what he was told,” he continued. “Millions of bigots, subtle and obvious, put it in his hand and assured him he was doing the right thing.” Royko listed the hate-mongering radio jocks (multiplied in our time by virulent social media bigots), the pandering politicians, the racist protesters, the passive “nodders” at bigotry, even J. Edgar Hoover’s mud-slinging FBI, the agency then charged with finding King’s killer.

“They all took their place in King’s firing squad. … The bullet that hit King came from all directions.”

More than 50 years later, the victims have hardly changed – anyone vulnerable, anyone outside a rigidly enforced sexist and racist norm, anyone who can be defined, marginalized, and targeted as “not like us.” They are murdered for existing, and the bullets still come from all directions.

“We have pointed a gun at our own head and we are squeezing the trigger,” concluded Royko. “And nobody we elect is going to help us. It is our head and our finger.”

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More by Michael King
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Akira Ross, 88th Legislature, hate crimes

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