A Jury's Hate-crime Verdict In Rural Pennsylvania Reinforces The Racial Divide

You don't have to have been from rural Pennsylvania to have been able to predict the outcome of this case: Some satisfied, others outraged with verdi

You don't have to have been from rural Pennsylvania to have been able to predict the outcome of this case:

Some satisfied, others outraged with verdict for immigrant's death

Friends and relatives of two teens accused in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant struggled to contain their relief as not-guilty verdicts were announced on the most serious charges against the former high school football stars Friday.

Gasps filled the courtroom and some had to be restrained by sheriff's deputies as they tried to rush the defense table after Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarsky, 17, were acquitted of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and ethnic intimidation for the death of Luis Ramirez.

Piekarsky was also found not guilty of third-degree murder for the death of Ramirez, who died of blunt force injuries after an encounter with the teens last summer.

As Avery Friedman argues persuasively in the video from CNN yesterday, this was a pretty clear-cut case of jury nullification: the weight of evidence against the accused was so powerful that it's clear the all-white jury -- like similar juries in the South during the Civil Rights struggle -- was not going to convict two young white men of murdering a Mexican. Even if, as Friedman says, "the only reason he is dead is because he was Mexican."

Prosecutors alleged that the teens baited the Ramirez into a fight with racial epithets, provoking an exchange of punches and kicks that ended with Ramirez convulsing in the street, foaming from the mouth. He died two days later in a hospital.

Piekarsky was accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after he was knocked to the ground.

As they poured out of courthouse, the teens' supporters shouted "I was right from the start" and "I'm glad the jury listened" at cameras that caught the late-night verdict.

But Gladys Limon, a spokeswoman for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the jury had sent a troubling message.

"The jurors here [are] sending the message that you can brutally beat a person, without regard to their life, and get away with it, continue with your life uninterrupted," she said.

Considering some of the details of the killing, it's also inordinately clear this was a classic bias crime, with the incident instigated by racially charged taunts that made clear the victim was selected because of racial animus:

"Isn't it a little late for you guys to be out?" the boys said, according to court documents. "Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here."

... Burke recalled hearing one final, ominous threat as the teens ran. "They yelled, 'You effin bitch, tell your effin Mexican friends get the eff out of Shenandoah or you're gonna be laying effin next to him,' " she said.

That is, of course, the entire purpose of bias crimes: To hold the victim up as an example: "You're next." The purpose is to terrorize the target community, to drive them out, eliminate them.

My second book, Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America, was a study of hate crimes that focused on a single case that occurred in rural Washington state in the summer of 2000, but used it to springboard to an exploration of the rural dimensions of the problem in some depth.

Specifically, it examines why rural areas are more vulnerable to bias crimes than urban or suburban regions. And a lot of it has to do with entrenched attitudes about social roles in those areas, combined with a slowness to recognize the need to enforce bias-crimes laws that's acute in rural America.

An excerpt:

Towns like Ocean Shores, whose economic health is directly tied to the sense of welcome and well-being enjoyed by its visitors—including minorities from urban centers—can be badly harmed by a hate crime. Yet, perceptions notwithstanding, is Grays Harbor genuinely a racist place?

Probably not—at least, no more so than most other rural communities whose population historically have been homogenously white. Like nearly any small town in the Northwest—or any rural town in America, for that matter—the vast majority of the residents of Ocean Shores or Aberdeen are hard-working and well-meaning people who, beyond harboring the usual garden-variety racial stereotypes, are not racist or white supremacist in any serious way. They are usually disgusted by ideological racists and want nothing to do with them. And they are bewildered at suggestions they might be a haven for bigotry.

"Our police department received I don't know how many calls wanting to know if it was safe in Ocean Shores, is it a racist town?" says Carl Payne, who wound up taking the reins of the Ocean Shores Coalition, the group devoted to dealing with the town's unwanted new image. "They [police] didn't know it was a racist town."

"We aren't," insists Joan Payne, his wife, and executive director of the city's Chamber of Commerce. "We aren't a racist community. We have young people who were looking for trouble. And . . . it found them."

But like most rural communities, the evidence of racist activity is not completely absent, at least in Grays Harbor County and the surrounding area. There is at least one proclaimed skinhead in Aberdeen who proselytizes among the local disaffected teens, though to little effect. A year before the July Fourth incident in Ocean Shores, at a retreat outside the town of Frances—about thirty miles south—a major Christian Identity gathering of about one hundred people was quietly held, with only local law enforcement aware of its presence. And in just the month before Minh Hong's trial, the nearby town of Elma was plastered with neo-Nazi fliers promising a parade down Main Street on New Year’s Day. ...

Idiosyncratic events like that are one thing. However, it is hard not to find a broader undertow of bigotry that usually lingers in the quiet places of rural communities like Grays Harbor. The few minorities who live there will tell you, privately, that racism in the town can be “bad,” and even non-minorities see the signs. At times, the air in the local coffee shop wafts with smoke and complaints about “those damned Koreans” or “the stinking Mexicans” who have become the area’s most visible minorities. Or a well-liked neighbor who’s active in civic-minded organizations will, given the right turn in the conversation, suddenly spew a string of racist obscenities that surprise even his friends.

The response to these episodes is universal: simple silence. After all, there is a mantra common to all rural communities: “This is a nice town.” People are nice to each other. If someone wants to be a racist, well, most people won’t encourage them, but they won’t speak out against it, either. They might even laugh at their nigger jokes just to go along.

Grays Harbor County is confronting a change that many other rural districts in America face: an influx of new, nonwhite faces. The bulk of these are Latino, who in the 1990 Census numbered only 1,173, or only 1.8 percent of the population, but by 2000 had grown to represent 4.8 percent of the population with 3,258 residents. (The county, which includes the Quinault Indian Reservation, has for years had a steady population of about 5 percent Native Americans.) More Asians, too, are moving in (they now constitute 1.2 percent of the population, up slightly from 2000), many of them taking over high-profile businesses like restaurants and convenience stores.

This demographic change is happening broadly across rural America, particularly in the Midwest. As a report from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service points out:

Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the American population, and this growth is especially striking in rural America. The 2000 census shows that Hispanics accounted for only 5.5 percent of the Nation's nonmetro population, but 25 percent of nonmetro population growth during the 1990s. Many counties throughout the Midwest and Great Plains would have lost population without recent Hispanic population growth. Among nonmetro counties with high Hispanic population growth in the 1990s, the Hispanic growth rate exceeded 150 percent, compared with an average growth rate of 14 percent for non-Hispanics. Moreover, Hispanics are no longer concentrated in Texas, California, and other Southwestern States—today nearly half of all nonmetro Hispanics live outside the Southwest.

These kinds of demographic shifts, as it happens, often become the primary breeding grounds for hate crimes—even in decidedly non-rural settings. A study published by Donald Green in 1998 focused on New York City, and it found that demographic change in 140 community districts of the city between 1980 and 1990 predicted the incidence of hate crimes. The balance of whites and whatever the target group happened to be in a given community district was an important factor, but the rate at which that balance changed was perhaps even more significant. The most common statistical recipe was an area that was almost purely white in the past which experiences the sudden and noticeable immigration of some other group.

In the case of New York, what occurred was a rapid inmigration of three groups: Asians, Latinos and blacks, though in the latter case the migration was often a response to the other groups' arrival; blacks were in some ways moved around, or their neighborhood boundaries changed. A number of previously white areas—Bensonhurst being the classic case, or Howard Beach—experienced a rapid inmigration of various nonwhite groups. What was particularly revealing about the hate-crime pattern was that the crimes reflected the targets who were actually moving in—that is, they revealed that this was not a kind of generalized hatred. Where Asians moved in, the researchers found a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, and likewise with Latinos or blacks. Bias crime has more of a kind of reality-based component, at least in the aggregate, than is implicated by those psychological theories that suggest that there only exists a generalized sense of intolerance on the part of those who practice extreme forms of bigotry.

In a later study, Green found this trend replicated itself elsewhere—namely, in Germany after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s. In that case, there was rapid inmigration of immigrants into formerly homogeneous eastern Germany, which replicated the conditions in New York as the perfect recipe for bias crime. And indeed, there was a huge surge in hate crimes, which only slowed when the flow of immigrants was halted in the summer of 1993.

"Thinking about the kind of spatial and temporal dimensions of hate crime is a start in the right direction," says Green. "What it helps to think about is the difference between the static and the dynamic dimensions of this problem. People talk about the problem of hate crime being hate—of course, it is a problem, but hate isn't necessarily rising or falling in the society as a whole. What's changing is your proximity to people that you find onerous. And also your ability to organize or to take action against them.

"There are two hypotheses about why it is that hate crimes subside when demographic change runs its course. One hypothesis is that the haters either accept the fact changes occur to them or they move away. Another hypothesis is that nobody really changes their attitude, it's just that the capacity to organize against some outsider—meeting at the back fence and conspiring against somebody—no longer becomes possible when one of your back-fence neighbors is now no longer part of the old nostalgic group."

Green says that both suburbs and rural areas are the next frontiers for hate crimes, partly because the demographic change is beginning to hit there now, "and they will lack the political will to deal with it."

... Most significantly, this phenomenon in fact reflects the perceptions many minorities have of small, rural towns: that they are not safe for people of color or for gays. That if trouble were to erupt, there would be no one to help them, and law enforcement officers would be unsympathetic. That if someone were to commit a hate crime against them, there is a not unreasonable likelihood the perpetrator would get away with it.

The fear and suspicion with which rural denizens regard cities and their dwellers is a well-established American archetype. What is often less observed, but is equally true, is the sheer dread that rural America raises in the minds of those minorities whose populations are largely centered in urban areas. When they leave their familiar surroundings for the so-called heartland—where some 83 percent of the population nationally is white—it is often with real fear about what might befall them.

It is a mistrust bred partly of myth and partly of reality. Its consequences, whatever its cause, are profound on a broad scale, because its chief effect is to widen the already formidable cultural gap between white America and the rest of us.

This case certainly underscores the need for a federal bias-crime law. Now that it's passed the House, it's time to get the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in the Senate and sent to President Obama's desk.

About David Neiwert

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