AN OKLAHOMA CITY councilman who helped dismantle a local hate crimes ordinance several years ago asked Tuesday if the assailants who viciously beat teen-ager Israel Byrd could be prosecuted under federal or state hate crime statutes.
Ward 3 Councilman Jack Cornett said later he remains opposed to a local hate crimes ordinance. But his comments Tuesday re-energized long dormant support of such an ordinance and of a city human rights commission disbanded in 1996.
Cornett told fellow council members he wants the city to hold Byrd's attackers responsible for their actions.
"I don't think we as Oklahoma Cityans can stand to have violence like that happen and then not react to it," Cornett said.
His comment drew a quick rebuke from Ward 7 Councilwoman Willa Johnson.
Johnson said Cornett and other council members contributed to a climate of indifference when they voted in 1996 against a hate crimes ordinance and abolished the city's human rights commission.
Johnson said the commission could have done much to educate the community about the senselessness of hate-based violence.
"Now we see the reasons about why we should have had a hate crimes ordinance," she said.
Johnson and Ward 6 Councilwoman Ann Simank also said Tuesday they would support bringing back a local hate crimes ordinance and an appointed commission to help enforce it.
Johnson and Simank were in the minority when a five-member council majority voted in 1996 to smother attempts to keep alive a city Human Rights Commission.
The city's only hate crimes ordinance was deemed unconstitutional by city attorneys. An effort to write a replacement ended with the city council deciding against keeping the ordinance and the commission itself.
Byrd, who is white, was found by his mother sitting in a pool of his own blood near Mayfield Middle School, NW 16 and Purdue, where he had gone to ride his skateboard. He described his attackers as five or six black men who jumped out of a car and beat him with their fists. Police believe he was also beaten with his skateboard.
Since the attack, police and members of the city council have been deluged with e-mails from people who believe the June 1 attack on Byrd, 15, was race-related.
Some of the e-mail messages were overtly racist. One writer extolled "white power, white pride, white life," while another identified himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Oklahoma City police, however, say there is no evidence the attack was racially motivated, and they insist the June 1 attack on Byrd, 15, was not a hate crime. Byrd's mother, Ronda Brumback, has also said she has no reason to believe race was a factor in the attack.
Police have arrested Shijuan Deshele Haynes, 17, and are searching for three other suspects. Haynes and the other suspects are all said to be black.
While police said the beating occurred "for no particular reason," Cornett said Tuesday he believed they should consider alternative motives. Cornett said he waited to ask City Manager Glenn Deck and City Attorney Bill West to look into the hate crimes issue, saying he hoped it might be brought up by other council members.
"I might, one of these days, even sponsor a hate crime law. But the human rights commission issue is separate," Cornett said Tuesday, defending his comments.
"If they (other council members) were so up on this, why didn't they raise any concerns about this young man?"
Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who took office after the commission was disbanded, said Tuesday he opposes establishing a new hate crimes ordinance.
"The struggle I have with it is, you have to get back to the motive of the person who committed the crime. I struggle with anybody's ability to do that," he said. "I think if any person assaults another person, it's a crime no matter what their motivation is."
Humphreys said he believes the human rights commission was disbanded because it had been "co-opted by people promoting the gay/lesbian agenda."
He said he would consider requests by Simank and Johnson to reconsider a commission if they exclude discussion of gays and lesbians.
"I've never seen a person whose skin used to be black and is now white. However, there are people who used to proclaim they were gay and are now straight. It's a matter of choice," Humphreys said.
Johnson, who is black, said Cornett's request illustrates Oklahoma City needs to revisit the hate crimes law and human rights commission issues.
"In my view, it is time," Johnson said.