In December, with those events swirling in the local news, Governor Chris Sununu announced a major change within the state’s top law enforcement agency.
“We are establishing a Civil Rights Unit within the Department of Justice,” said Sununu from a podium inside the Statehouse. “The vast majority of states in this country do already have civil rights units, and it is time that we do the same.”
The new Civil Rights Unit is charged with investigating complaints of violence and discrimination motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. This isn’t a new law -- New Hampshire has had enhanced penalties for hate crimes for years. But it represents a shift in how these cases are handled.
Elizabeth Lahey, who directs the division, says victims can now file a complaint directly to the office when they suspect discrimination.
“It’s not uncommon in New Hampshire,” she says. “I think New Hampshire thinks of itself as sort of immune, and it’s not.”
Along with a dedicated staff within the Department of Justice to handle these complaints, the Civil Rights Unit also has a larger mission. It partners with local law enforcement on investigations, and leads educational trainings. Lahey says it’s also intent on sending a message about where the state stands on discrimination.
“We need to not only enforce the law but make sure that we are reaching out and supporting the communities that are affected by these types of acts or, also, perhaps especially vulnerable to hate crimes and hate conduct and hate incidents and hate speech.”
This week, Lahey and the Civil Rights Unit filed what she calls its first formal action. It’s bringing a hate crime case against a 32-year old hotel employee named Priscilla Protasowicki. Protasowicki and her family run the Covered Bridge Riverview Lodge, a small inn in the mountain town of Jackson with the motto: ‘Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends.’
The state has released limited information about incident, but Protasowicki is eager to share her side of the story.
She says in April, a family called and asked for a room and wanted to check in early.
“So I clean the room, I got it all ready, I made it really extra nice for them. Sprayed it, made it smell good, clean it, scrub it, and I’m there at 10 o’clock ready for them to check in,” she says.
But when the family arrived, Protasowicki says they criticized the hotel’s cleanliness, and asked for a refund, something the hotel has a policy against.
“Doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Asian, Muslim,” says Protasowicki. “If somebody comes here and they say I want a refund, I have to give them the same policy as I tell everybody: no refund.”
What happened in the hotel lobby next is the focus of the state’s case. Prosecutors allege the confrontation escalated and the victims were shoved out of the door. They contend that during the dispute, Protasowicki made comments about the family’s Muslim religion, and that they weren’t welcome at the inn because of their faith. The wife was wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim covering.
Protasowicki denies the allegations.
“This had nothing to do with race,” she says. “It’s the fact that they didn’t even want to stay here. I wanted them to stay here. I’ve had Muslims stay here for a week. They’re very nice people. They played with my kids. I invited them up to my private living quarters. But these people were just scum like you wouldn’t believe. These people in particular were like, I don’t know, radicalized or something.”
Protasowicki didn’t elaborate on these statements, or what she meant by “radicalized.” Prosecutors describe the couple as a family from Massachusetts on vacation in the White Mountains.
The incident ended with the local police arriving on scene. If convicted of the simple assault and enhanced hate crime charges, she faces up to five years in prison and fines.
No matter the outcome, Devon Chaffee with the ACLU of New Hampshire, and a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, applauds the Department of Justice for pursuing the case.
“We know that these issues of bias, discrimination and even violence are occurring, and it is really great to see that the civil rights division is stepping up to the plate and taking action,” says Chaffee.
Chaffee says it’s important for the Civil Rights Unit to have “teeth,” and to show residents of New Hampshire that it won’t tolerate discrimination in any form.