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Hate crimes shift target

For Florida and our nation, the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 serves as an appropriate time to reflect on where we stand in our dealings with one another. As chair of the Florida Commission on Human Relations, I believe we must recognize that how Americans treat each other sets the tone for how the rest of the world treats Americans.

Our country has wrestled with an internal conflict since it was founded. On the one hand, we stand proudly as a nation of immigrants, a so-called melting pot that embraces people of all types and blends them into something uniquely American. On the other hand, throughout our history we have endured staggering divisions along lines of race, ethnicity, culture, nationality and more.

So how are we doing? Have the aftershocks of Sept. 11 brought us closer together? Or have they driven us even further apart?

Few things say more about human relations than hate crimes, which erupt when inner prejudices explode to the surface. Hate crimes are particularly reprehensible because their victims are targeted not for what they have done but simply for who and what they are.

For the past 20 years, the Florida Attorney General’s Office has issued an annual report detailing hate crimes reported to the state by law enforcement agencies. The most recent assessment, for 2009, shows the fewest hate crimes in the history of the report. But when we step back from that positive one-year snapshot and instead look at the bigger picture, what emerges is a pattern not of declining antagonisms but of changing targets.

Not surprisingly, the period immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks saw a dramatic spike in hate crime incidents in Florida, particularly those based on religion or national origin. Since that terrible day 10 years ago, the percentage of reported hate crimes based on the victim’s religion has grown by more than one-fifth and the share based on ethnicity or national origin has jumped by more than two-thirds. Over the same time period, the share of hate crimes based on a victim’s race or color has fallen 24 percent.

Taking an even broader view, looking at the past two decades, these numbers seem to suggest that Florida has become somewhat more tolerant in the area of race relations but has become less accepting of those whose faith or origin set them apart.

We can take comfort in knowing that in a diverse state of 19 million people, so few abandon civility and resort to cowardly acts of hate-based crime. As the state’s anti-discrimination agency, the Florida Commission on Human Relations works to help Floridians build a brighter future together. Unfortunately, we must recognize that our shared history over the past 10 years has not necessarily brought us closer together nor diminished the hate that exists; sometimes, it has merely changed the target.

Let’s take time to reflect on the loss of life, the families left behind and our collective responsibility for sustaining and maintaining peace in our world.

—Donna Elam

Chair, Florida Commission on Human Relations

Maintain tree budget

If you are one of the 60 Winter Park residents waiting to get your dead tree removed, you better be patient.

Let’s hope there is not a storm to cause your tree or branches to break and land on anything but open grass.

Some of the Winter Park commissioners again have reduced the forestry budget by $100,000, which could mean a reduction — again — of three employees. The commissioners believe taking $100,000 out of the Tree Preservation Fund to hire a private contractor to deal with just dead trees is all well and no big deal.

However, if you do the math, one dead tree costs $4,000-$5,000 for removal. That would only remove 20-25 trees next year. Last month, there were 13 new requests for tree removals. Once you reduce a budget $100,000 two years in a row, it may be difficult to ever get that money back into forestry.

The mayor led the discussion concerning trees and the forestry budget by repeatedly saying: “What are we getting for $900,000? Maybe we need to reduce their budget more, maybe they are not efficient.” On Page 127 of the printed budget is an itemization of every dollar in the forestry budget. Perhaps the mayor should have read this page after the long discussion and confusion about the forestry budget and commitment to residents in the budget work session two weeks ago.

—Nancy Shutts

Winter Park