A community forum on hate crimes held on the Upper West Side last week took on added emotional heft in the wake of the death of Timothy Caughman, a 66-year-old black man who was allegedly murdered by a white supremacist days earlier.
Caughman was stabbed to death on West 36th Street late on the evening of Monday, March 20, allegedly by James Jackson, at 28-year-old white man who reportedly admitted to police that he had traveled to New York from Baltimore specifically to kill black men.
The meeting, held on Thursday, March 23 at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School on West 102nd Street, had been scheduled in response to earlier incidents, but as New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance and other city officials gathered to discuss the city’s response to recent hate crimes and field questions from the public, Caughman’s death weighed heavily over the proceedings.
“It’s an event that hits all of us and shocks all of us,” Vance said. Vance’s announcement that the man had been charged with second degree murder as a hate crime was met with scattered cheers from the sizable crowd in the high school gymnasium. The DA explained that the charges would carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for Jackson if he is found guilty, five more years than the minimum had the act not been prosecuted as a hate crime.
Days later, Vance’s office added charges of murder in the first and second degrees as an act of terrorism to Jackson’s indictment. “James Jackson wanted to kill black men, planned to kill black men, and then did kill a black man,” Vance said in a statement announcing the terrorism charges.
“We are in the midst of what can only be considered a crime wave,” City Council Member Mark Levine said, referring to an “epidemic of hatred.”
According to the NYPD data covering Jan. 1 to Feb. 26, reported hate crimes were up 55 percent in 2017 compared to the same period last year. Thirty-five reported anti-Semitic crimes made up the largest share of the 68 total incidents, including a series of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and institutions. The statistics do not cover early March, when swastikas were carved in the front door of the Fourth Universalist Society, an Upper West Side church. Mayor Bill de Blasio has connected the rise in hate crimes to the campaign rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
At the community forum, Public Advocate Letitia James called for a moment of silence in memory of Caughman. “Those are isolated incidents,” James said of recent hate crimes. “And there are more of us than there are of them.”
Jeanne Olivo, the assistant district attorney in charge of the office’s hate crime unit, said that though there was a spike in hate crimes in the period from after Election Day to the end of 2016 and hate crimes are up citywide in the early part of 2017, the number of incidents in the borough of Manhattan in recent weeks been about the same as last year. “It’s been a little bit quieter in the last month or so, so I’m hoping that that can continue,” she said, adding that “one hate crime is one too many.”
The district attorney’s office maintains a hate crime hotline at (212) 335-3100. Prosecutors urged members of the public to call the number to report potential hate crimes even if they are unsure of whether a specific incident constitutes a hate crime. “Don’t be afraid to report,” Oliva said. “If you report something and it’s not a hate crime, we won’t be shy in telling you, but we will try to steer you in the right direction.”
Olivo stressed that the immigration status of a victim has no bearing on whether an offense can be prosecuted a hate crime, and that victims should not hesitate to report crimes if they are undocumented. “The law does not say that you can commit a crime against someone who is not here lawfully,” she said. “That’s just silly.”