She wanted him to look at her.

Kalkidan Miller heard him yelling. At first, she thought he was preaching. Then she realized he was shouting at their group standing outside Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church near Fordham Boulevard as they held their weekly Black Lives Matter vigil.

“It’s not about Black lives,” Miller recalls the man saying. Other bystanders recall hearing him say “all lives matter,” and using the n-word. His daughter was standing beside him, adding some “yeahs” and repeating after her father. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and holding a glass bottle. It was July 3, and he said the demonstrators were being un-American.

He made eye contact with Miller. As he walked away, cursing, she approached him.

“I don’t know what I was thinking, exactly,” Miller says. “But I know I wanted him to experience, to see what I was feeling when he was doing that.”

He looked at her.

“What are you gonna do, bitch?” he said.

He punched her.

The then-19-year-old fell to the ground. She remembers him holding her head down, and punching her more.

“All I know is, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I could die,’” Miller says. “Like, it’s possible this is how I die.”

In November, Miller’s attacker pleaded guilty to two charges. Initially, the only charge was “assault on a female.” The second charge, “ethnic intimidation,” or North Carolina’s version of a hate crime statute, was harder to come by.

Those charged with “ethnic intimidation,” a misdemeanor, could receive up to 120 days in prison. It’s considered one of the weakest hate crime laws in the country.

Kalkidan and her mother, Carol, are working to change that.

Lawmakers in both the state House and Senate filed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act this March. Kalkidan helped with the House bill, filed March 22 by Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Democrat from Charlotte. The bill aims to change the definition of a hate crime, consider it a felony, and require reporting of hate crimes at the state level.

“There was a huge hesitation because the law is so poorly written,” Kalkidan says of having her assailant tried for ethnic intimidation, though he eventually was. “He literally had to say, ‘I am physically and verbally assaulting you because you’re Black, and because you’re a woman.’” 

The Millers made a spur-of-the-moment decision to attend the vigil that Friday in July. They aren’t members at Binkley, but Carol has friends there. Kalkidan was feeling the weight of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, coupled with the pandemic cutting short her first year of college.

“I was protesting several times, but that took a lot of mental effort, to even get myself to do that,” she says. “I just felt hopeless.”

Kalkidan isn’t a North Carolina native. She spent her early childhood in Ethiopia. Carol Miller adopted her, and she moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, at 12 years old. For her junior and senior years of high school, Kalkidan lived in Chapel Hill, where she says she felt “invisible.”

“I think race had a huge contribution to that,” she says. “I’d take these honor classes and I’d probably be one of the few Black or persons of color in that class, period. When we’d do group projects, no one would talk to me. I just existed.”

The assault wasn’t the first time she’d been racially profiled in Chapel Hill. One time, she was driving through her neighborhood and ran a stop sign. A police officer pulled her over, and asked if she had a weapon in her car. 

She put her hands on the wheel, like she’d been taught. She says the officer thought that meant she was trained with a firearm. By the time she made it to her house, she was shaking.

When she was attacked on July 3, Carol called the police. Kalkidan thought she was crazy.

“I was like, ‘They’re gonna take my ass to jail,’” she says now, noting the irony in that, despite her being a victim, she was worried about being criminalized. The officer who arrived on the scene was a woman and seemed sympathetic. 

Bart Moody, the man who assaulted her, walked away with his daughter before the officer arrived. A church member who was there recalls two women trying to keep up with him. One was using a walker. 

The police found Moody at a nearby apartment. He’d changed out of his Hawaiian shirt. Kalkidan, Carol, and the officer had to drive by to identify him. Carol remembers how friendly the officers who approached Moody seemed to be towards him.

“It was kind of like they were having a little garden party talk,” Carol says.

Moody had been convicted of assault and second-degree kidnapping in 2004, and served prison time. The day he attacked Kalkidan, he wasn’t arrested.

Emergency responders who arrived on the scene told Kalkidan she should go to the emergency room, just to get checked out. Still in shock, she kept laughing while talking to the doctor.

“I was like, ‘Did this just happen?’” she says. “I knew it could happen, I just didn’t think it would happen to me. That is the thing about racism: that day-to-day fear of, ‘Is this the day something could happen?’”

North Carolina’s current hate crime law is two sentences long. 

“If a person shall, because of race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin, assault another person, or damage or deface the property of another person, or threaten to do any such act, he shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

The “Ethnic Intimidation” law was ratified in 1991, one year after the federal government required the FBI to start keeping records on hate crimes across the country. The second sentence condemns teaching people how to perform a hate crime.

The bill was last updated in 1995, when the maximum sentence was reduced from two years in prison to 120 days at most. The law doesn’t require the State Bureau of Investigation to collect data on hate crimes, unlike in 30 other states. It also leaves out gender, sexual orientation, and disability.

The FBI releases a Hate Crime Statistics report every year, compiled of incidents voluntarily submitted by law enforcement offices. North Carolina has 504 law enforcement agencies, but only 332 participate in the federal collection of hate crime data. In 2019, only 80 of those agencies reported hate crimes. A total of 211 hate crimes were reported; hardly any of those led to criminal charges, and even fewer resulted in convictions.

The number of hate crimes reported by law enforcement is wildly inaccurate, based on what is known from other studies. The FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Report listed 7,314 incidents across the country in 2019. The Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey, which collects incidents reported and unreported by law enforcement, estimates that this annual number is closer to 250,000 incidents—meaning less than three percent of 2019 hate crimes made their way into official statistics.

The federal government has legal definitions of hate crimes, as well as protections for the victims in these cases. But most of these crimes are tried in criminal court, and parsed out by state judges. A hate crime is always an addition to another charge, and is largely seen as symbolic. But that symbolism carries weight.

“The naming and express prosecution of a hate crime acknowledges the underlying history of prejudice and discrimination and affirms that such crimes do more harm than the act alone,” wrote Shea Denning, a professor of public law at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 2015, following the murders of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill.

Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were killed in their condo after Craig Hicks, a neighbor, came to their door accusing them of keeping him from his parking spot. 

They weren’t parked in his spot. Nor were they hostile. Still, Hicks called them “disrespectful punks” in a jailhouse interview. 

Hicks and his wife said the parking dispute was the motive for the killings. So did Chapel Hill police (although they retracted the characterization in 2019). But Hicks had made Facebook posts about how much he hated religion, and was known to be hostile toward non-white neighbors. 

He ultimately received three life sentences for the murders, but was not charged under the “ethnic intimidation” statute. The families of Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters still maintain the killings constituted a hate crime.

The Millers succeeded in adding ethnic intimidation to Moody’s charges.

As he was walking away after the assault, he turned to two white women who were protesting. Pam Swanson, one of the women, recalled him saying, “I’d hit you too, but I don’t hit women.”

Swanson told Carol Miller. Carol told the prosecutor and, she says, that’s what sealed the deal for the hate crime charge. 

Moody pleaded guilty to both charges. Kalkidan asked the judge not to consider a prison sentence for Moody due to her belief in restorative justice. She says this made a lot of people—especially older Black people—angry, though she is clear that she doesn’t forgive Moody. At his case hearing in November, she read a poem for Moody, and for all the lawyers who asked her to repeat her account of the traumatic event.

“Society seems to forget we are human, too,” she wrote. “We are somebody’s daughter, sister, grandchild, mother, grandmother, lover, and more. We are human beings that give and give, but rarely get anything in return.”

Moody received probation for 24 months.

Again, the Millers’ legal victory is the exception, not the rule. North Carolina’s statute is weak, and the justice system is often hesitant to apply it.

Three years after the murder of Barakat and the Abu-Salhas, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Raleigh, filed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act for the first time. 

It didn’t get a hearing.

He filed it again in 2019. Once again, no hearing.

“I don’t know the reason as to why a common sense bill of this kind, a bill that to me seems to really not have a partisan bias, should not at least have a hearing,” Chaudhuri told the INDY

Chaudhuri filed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act—again—on March 31, a week after Majeed filed the bill in the House and two weeks following the shootings of six Asian American spa workers in Atlanta. Chaudhuri says that to get the bill the hearing it deserves, vulnerable communities will have to “let their voices be heard.”

On a recent Saturday in March, Kalkidan and Carol returned to Binkley Baptist Church. The congregation hasn’t stopped its weekly vigil, more than 10 months after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd and nine months since the assault outside the Chapel Hill church.

The Millers stood in the center of the group, spread out across a patch of grass along Fordham Boulevard. Some 25 people held signs, waved to cars. 

Some cars honk as they pass the church. Some drivers hold up their fists to show solidarity. Occasionally, the crowd gets flipped off. The church has a Black Lives Matter banner staked in the grass at the end of the property. Parts of it have been duct-taped. A bottom corner has been burned, and the black plastic is puckered and peeled.

Kalkidan brought a speaker and played songs by various pop artists, including Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe. Since July, she’s been splitting time between college in Greensboro and working on the bill. She had papers due the week of the court hearing.

She says she’s tired of white people telling her to “make something good out of it,” and suddenly listening to her after ignoring her for years. She’s worried that her life is going to be reduced—that she’ll always be “the girl that got punched,” instead of the poet, the musician, the photographer, the traveler, the activist. That’s what happens to a lot of Black people who are victimized, she says.

“Breonna Taylor—this is not her narrative,” she says. “This is something brought on to her by people that control society. They took her life. Same thing with George Floyd. He’s not a guy that was murdered by police. He had hopes, dreams. He has people he loves. But that’s his narrative.”

She worries about living in fear. The night of the attack, she slept in her little sister’s bed. She gets nervous about seeing Moody at the grocery store. The night before the court date, a man in a white truck threatened to kill her as she drove through her neighborhood. 

She’s taking this stand for her younger brother and sister, who are also Black, so they don’t have to be afraid.

“Being young is difficult, but being young, Black and female is difficult,” she says. “That is my experience. I’m going to speak for myself.”

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