Sydney Morning Herald 3-2-07
America’s long battle with racism has taken a nasty new twist on the mean
streets of Los Angeles. Peter Huck reports.
It was a Halloween fright fest that went horribly wrong for three young
women. Shortly after they left a “haunted house” in a middle class area of
Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, on October 31, a teenage mob set upon the
Even by the savage conditions that often prevail on Los Angeles’s mean
streets, what followed was a vicious assault. The women were surrounded by a
group of kicking and punching teenagers. One victim suffered multiple
fractures to her face and needs surgery to reposition an eye that was
smashed in. Another was knocked unconscious by a skateboard. The third has a
But for the intervention of a passer-by, the victims believe the mob –
estimated by witnesses as about 30 strong – would have killed them. Last
week, after an emotional trial fraught with legal histrionics and claims of
witness intimidation, eight girls, age 13 to 18, and one 18-year-old male
were found guilty of hate crimes, while a 12-year-old girl was acquitted.
Two other boys were subsequently charged and await trial.
Long Beach is used to violence. Gangs are endemic. Murder frequent. But the
Halloween case has had a big impact.
All the defendants were black. Their victims were white. Not only that, but
the defendants, who chanted “F— white people!” and other racial epithets
during the melee, were charged with hate crimes, a charge traditionally seen
in white-on-black crimes.
“I think the case has the potential to have a much wider impact,” says Tracy
Manzer, who covered the story for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Few would
Yet apart from the Press-Telegram and, belatedly, the Los Angeles Times,
plus heated radio commentary, national press coverage was scant, partly due
to uncertainties about how to report a black-on-white hate crime. The Times
agonised that laws designed to prosecute hate crimes – defined by Congress
in 1992 as “motivated by hatred, bias or prejudice, based on the actual or
perceived race, colour, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual
orientation or gender identity of another individual or group of
individuals” – might end up “punishing blacks”.
This touched a deep nerve that goes back to America’s still unresolved
racial baggage from the slavery and segregation eras. When white members of
a lacrosse team from Duke University in North Carolina were accused of
raping a black stripper at a party last year, the case attracted saturation
coverage and touched off a national firestorm. Seinfeld’s Michael Richards
was castigated for saying “nigger” – so insulting it cannot be used in US
media – while ranting at hecklers in a Los Angeles club.
So the media’s comparative silence on the Long Beach case has been
deafening. David Mills, a black screenwriter and former reporter for The
Washington Post, told the Romenesko blog: “You don’t have to be a
card-carrying Klansman to point out that the LA Times surely would be
treating this story differently if three black women had been attacked by 30
white teenagers hurling words like ‘F— black people’.”
Did the press back off because it was worried it might seem racist? “It’s
like walking on eggshells,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black columnist in
Los Angeles. He believes the media’s inability to get a handle on a story
that reversed stereotypes is perhaps as important as fears of appearing
racist. And, as Manzer dryly points out: no one died.
Nonetheless, the Long Beach assaults reflect a disturbing trend. The Los
Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, which collects statistics,
says hate crimes rose 34 per cent during 2005 (the latest available figure).
“The intriguing thing is the hate crimes they’re talking about are not the
old white-on-black, or bashing Jews, gays and Muslims,” Hutchinson says.
“The majority of hate crimes in LA County are committed by Latinos and
blacks, on each other, or whites.”
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