Driton Nicaj, a 19-year old Manhattan man, was arrested last Friday in connection with a string of anti-gay robberies that took place on the Upper East Side in May and June. Nicaj is being held on charges of aggravated harassment and robbery as a hate crime. According to Paul J. Browne, the NY Police Department’s chief spokesman, Nicaj confessed to being involved in at least one of the attacks during the one month span during which Nicaj and a group of men beat, robbed and yelled anti-gay slurs at multiple victims. Police are still in search of at least four other as yet unnamed suspects in connection with the crimes. One of the assaults occurred during NYC's Pride Week celebrations and targeted former Village Voice staffer Joseph Holladay, who was hospitalized after being beaten and left unconscious. Local newspaper Our Town reported that another of the victims was approached by a group of four men while sitting on a park bench with a male friend. The men asked, “Are you guys gay? Gross.” and proceeded to mug the victims. Cases of violence like this against the LGBT community underscore the need for exhaustive federal hate crime legislation like the Matthew Shepard Act to combat the pervasive problem of hate-motivated crimes. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, reports of violence against LGBT people have increased in severity across the country, reaching the highest rates in more than a decade. Seventeen percent of last year's anti-gay murders were committed in the New York City area alone. In a letter to the editor in The New York Times, NYC Anti-Violence Project's Executive Director Sharon Stapel stated:
"The Matthew Shepard Act, which if passed by the Senate would expand the 1968 federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, is long overdue (editorial, May 6). In today’s world, which is so diverse, we cannot condone violence based on actual or perceived identity. If we do, we are all vulnerable. At the New York City Anti-Violence Project, we know that more is needed. We also must stop the violence from happening in the first place. This requires public education and training of first responders and law enforcement. We know in New York that hate-crimes protection can be a powerful tool in prosecuting crimes, but it does not prevent them. Each year we see violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities increase, despite this legislation. To prosecute these crimes is one way to vindicate the lives of those who died because of who they are, and we have an obligation to do so. But to truly eradicate violence, we have to go beyond punitive measures to preventive ones, so that we don’t lose another Matthew Shepard to this senseless violence."The timing of these violent crimes in relation to the 40 Year Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is a startling reminder of the importance of inclusive hate crime legislation in securing the safety and well-being of LGBT individuals. For more information on how to support the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, check out The Matthew Shepard Foundation.