Calling it like they see it

By Michelle Chen Mar 20, 2009

Often seen as a cloistered outpost of New York City, Long Island is now becoming known for the blight of racial violence. Last November, the killing of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, sparked public outcry over hate crimes on Long Island, particularly the Suffolk County government’s failure to respond coherently. The profile of the alleged attackers—six white and one Latino youth—also set off wide debate over who should be held accountable when a community’s young people come to see racially driven savagery as a way to pass the time. Soon, more reports emerged of other attacks on Latino immigrants that had gone largely ignored by authorities. The suspicious vandalizing of a local LGBT center further stirred anxieties about hostility against marginalized communities. Though whether the incident was technically a hate crime is debatable, one detective quoted in the Times remarked on the thorny semantics of bias-fueled violence:

“It’s better to call it a hate crime on the front end than risk being accused of being insensitive if something turns out to be a hate crime after you solve it.”

While awareness of hate crimes has grown since the Lucero killing, the issue took on another crease earlier this month with an attack in neighboring Nassau County. The accused this time are a group of Latino men, who allegedly shouted epithets as they beat Daryl Jackson, a middle-aged Black man. The question of how to name the violence has outraged and divided community members. One Latino advocacy group that had spoken out on the Lucero case protested that race did not motivate the attack. But the immigrant rights organization Long Island Wins has cautioned against rash judgment, while also reminding communities that no group has a monopoly on hatred:

At a time when hate crimes are up nationally, and when Long Island has seen violent attacks or threats against African Americans, Latinos, and gays and lesbians, it is vital that police not be reluctant to call a hate crime what it is. This is a view shared by the leadership of the immigrant rights groups here on Long Island. None of us believes that being an immigrant or being Latino or Asian-American immunizes a person from committing a hate crime.

The key problem here is not so much whether individuals can commit violence with impunity, but whether the entire community and its institutions can, without hesitation, fulfill their responsibility to protect basic human rights. Image: Daryl Jackson, who police say was attacked by five men in Roosevelt, rests in a hospital room at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow. (Peter Walden Sr. / Newsday)