City councilors unanimously approved an ordinance on Monday that creates a way to prosecute hate crimes at the municipal level if certain acts are motivated by hostility against protected classes.
The measure is modeled after a Tulsa ordinance city councilors adopted in 2020. City officials said that was the first municipal hate crimes measure approved in Oklahoma — similar ordinances are being considered in Tahlequah and Okmulgee.
The ordinance adopted by Muskogee City Council makes it a misdemeanor to commit certain crimes when motivated by a malicious and specific intent to intimidate or harass a person of a protected class. Protected classes include race, color, religion, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin or disability.
Crimes delineated by the ordinance, which are punishable by up to six months in jail and a $750 fine, include assault, battery, trespass, vandalism or threats to do those — or other delineated — acts. It also makes it a crime to transmit threatening messages telephonically, electronically or by broadcast medium if its "likely to incite or produce imminent violence" if there is the requisite malicious and specific intent.
Consideration of the Muskogee ordinance was prompted by an assault in June of a clerk at a local convenience store and a tepid response by police. The clerk, who was cursed and threatened with death, said the responding officer advised nothing could be done "because LGBTQ residents are not covered under a hate crime ordinance."
Scotty Otwell, president of Muskogee Equality, described passage of the ordinance as "a big day for Muskogee." Otwell said he and other members of Oklahomans for Equality's local chapter have been working with Mayor Marlon Coleman and City Attorney Roy Tucker since late June on this ordinance.
"We've seen it, we've discussed it, we worked together along this entire path — the city has been very open and kept us involved every step of the way," Otwell said about working with Coleman and Tucker and the ordinance. "I'm very impressed with our mayor, our city attorney and our police chief ..., they've been open and kind to us."
Dan Chepkauskas, a Muskogee resident who has "been involved in politics at a fairly high level for over 30 years," told councilors he believes the ordinance will prove divisive. He said thousands of bills are introduced every year by lawmakers who have "good intentions," but they fail to think those measures through before passing them, creating "additional needs for additional laws, additional requirements."
"I would submit to the council that you would be better served to create an ordinance that just simply spells out all people, not classes of people," Chepkauskas said. "You're trying to do the right thing, but I think you're going about it the wrong way, and you're going to create a whole host of problems going forward."
Otwell disagreed, saying this "ordinance changes lives, saves lives," and will "not harm people in any way." Otwell said the ordinance will protect those who have been beaten, threatened, and intimidated by others just because of who they are or how they identify.
"I cannot stand — I will not stand, and my organization will not stand — for a city that will not support us," Otwell said. "All you have done since I've taken over as president is accept us and stand by us and taken our hands and told us that we will be accepted ... — you are the city we need."
BrandyAnn Brior, treasurer for Muskogee Equality, said Chepkauskas' "all lives matter" argument is flawed. Brior said the store clerk who was threatened was told by police the law as it existed at the time provided no protections — "that is why it needed to be changed."
Deputy Mayor Derrick Reed expressed some hesitation initially, saying councilors "may want to take a deep breath" and "dig in a little deeper" and "take a second look.
Tucker, who drafted the ordinance, provided additional explanation and answered several questions. With race and religion as a couple of the protected classes, Tucker said the ordinance is all-inclusive.
Coleman said it was unfortunate that when the topic of hate crime is discussed some believe protecting one class comes at the expense of others. He said the ordinance introduced and adopted "protects every race, not just people of color, and not just people of a particular demographic background."
"What we do tonight sends a clear signal ... that your divisiveness is not welcome here in the city of Muskogee," Coleman said. "We take pride and pleasure in being certain that we protect every resident, every individual, and every person, regardless of who they are, or where they are from."
Oklahoma is reported to be among 29 states in the nation that have no laws with express protections for those who identify as LGBTQ. Local ordinances in Norman, according to Movement Advancement Project, protect the LGBTQ community against discrimination in housing.
The city of Tulsa adopted a hate-crime ordinance this past autumn that identifies gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes. Tulsa's ordinance extends protections to victims of hate crimes that don't rise to the level of a felony when the act is motivated by those protected or religion, race, national origin and disabilities.