President Biden signed a bill that classifies lynching as a federal hate crime, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Though Biden praised the measure's broad support, its path to approval has been fraught: It has taken more than 100 years and 200 attempts for proponents to achieve victory. The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, named after the 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped, brutally beaten, and shot by a mob of white men in Mississippi in 1955 before they threw him into a river, allows an act to be prosecuted as a lynching when a person conspires to commit a hate crime that results in death, serious bodily injury, and other serious harms, Vox reports. The law will give federal prosecutors another tool to prosecute some of the most brutal hate crimes. The act builds on the severity of the federal hate crimes laws that already exist.
The new act amends parts of the federal criminal code created by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed in 2009. The language of the new provision suggests that there is a difference between lynching and murder. The difference is in the historic and present-day effect of lynchings; the idea that the person who was killed is not the only victim. Lynchings are typically motivated by the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or other identifier. “Lynching has typically sent a message to an entire community that ‘you’re not safe here’ or ‘you could be next.’ Lynching has typically been motivated by racial animus and harms an entire community,” said Howard University law Prof. Justin Hansford. The three men convicted in 2021 of murdering Ahmaud Arbery — Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan — could have been charged with lynching if the law were in effect. A Justice Department official said the new law would allow for greater penalties for “a subset of completed hate crimes committed by multiple people acting together.” The victim does not have to be killed for a perpetrator to be charged with lynching; “serious bodily injury” would suffice.