Hate crime coalition meets in Kalamazoo

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - A hate crime forum in Kalamazoo Thursday night looked to ease concerns surrounding recent attacks against gays and lesbians.

Several attacks in the area have some on edge, including a lesbian couple whose house was vandalized on July 16.

Now, community leaders brainstormed ideas to strengthen Michigan's hate crime laws.

In the last month or so, there have been three attacks on people in Kalamazoo because of their sexual orientation.

One involved a verbal attack, another saw someone throwing rocks at people, and a house was also vandalized.

So Thursday night's meeting was about staying connected.

It was a day the Burks will never forget--the day their family home was violated and targeted by vandals last month.

They ransacked the lesbian couple's home on Clay Street, in Kalamazoo, writing hateful words and stealing thousands of dollars of valuables.

But under Michigan law, it's not considered a hate crime, since they weren't physically harmed for their sexual orientation.

That story helped spur a Hate Crime Coalition in Kalamazoo, and a meeting Thursday night at the Douglass Community Center.

"This is wrong and we will not tolerate it in any neighborhood, to any person, regardless of who you love and where you live," one attendee said.

Just Wednesday, a 31-year-old Kalamazoo-area native, Bryan Higgins, was taken off life support in San Francisco and died, days after being attacked on the street.

Detectives don't have a motive, but are investiagting it as a possible hate crime.

But the meeting in Kalamazoo Thursday night was a first step.

"I think it's about being out and open as an ally and LGBT individual, where we come together and stand up together and start talking," said Jay Maddock, with the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center.

The coalition will next focus on state lawmakers, pressuring them to add sexual orientation and gender identity to hate crime legislation in Michigan.

"It builds a more inclusive community," said Kalamazoo State Rep. Sean McCann. "It makes people feel more welcome, and it sends a strong message: if you commit crimes motivated by hate or bias, there's going to be a real serious response to that."

Michigan is one of 18 states that does not have sexual orientation in its hate crime laws, and one of 22 states that does not have gender identity.