A woman attacked with a beer mug in Coon Rapids joined community leaders to call on Minnesotans to speak up louder against hate crimes and religious bias.
Asma Jama vowed to serve as an advocate for other victims Thursday, days after her attacker pleaded guilty to third-degree assault at an Applebee’s, acknowledging racial and religious bias had driven her.
Jama and leaders such as St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao encouraged other victims of discrimination and hate crimes to come forward. They also said state leaders must continue to condemn Islamophobia and other prejudice, which they said have been on the rise during the run-up to the November elections.
“My message is, ‘Please, if you are a victim, if someone is harassing you, come forward,’ ” said Jama.
Advocates at the event hosted by the St. Paul-based nonprofit Voice of East African Women had planned to also call for the revival of legislation increasing penalties for felony assaults motivated by bias. But they learned Thursday that the bill actually passed in the final hours of this year’s legislative session.
Inspired by the attack against Jama and sponsored by state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the bill was folded into broader budget legislation after an intense fight over it.
It increases by 25 percent the maximum penalty for felony-level assaults when prosecutors show the crime was motivated by bias based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability.
The law went into effect in August. In most cases before then, the law only allowed for enhanced hate crime penalties for misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor assaults. Latz said he would consider introducing a bill during the coming session that would also increase penalties for other crimes, such as sexual assaults, in which bias was a factor.
“There are plenty of pretty nasty crimes out there to which we could apply enhanced penalties if the Legislature is open to that,” he said.
Jama and her supporters said Thursday they hope her case will encourage those reluctant to come forward after experiencing harassment or discrimination. Farhio Khalif of the Voice of East African Women, where Jama now works, said Muslim women in Minnesota have increasingly reported taunts and threats in recent months.
“Yes, the system works,” said Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community leader. “Yes, our partners in law enforcement trust us and treat us like anyone else.”
Khalif said her group will also encourage prosecutors across the state to seek the new tougher felony assault penalties when warranted.
Thao, the first Hmong-American elected to the St. Paul City Council, said he hopes Minnesotans will rally to reject prejudice at a time when the country is deeply divided.
“We share the same struggles,” he said, “and our fate and our destinies as Minnesotans are intertwined.”