Hate-Crime Sentence and Ruling on Marriage Cross a Spectrum of Justice

A hate-crime killing and Judge Walker's ruling speak to a spectrum of inequality from the county courthouse to a Brooklyn street.

By Michelle Chen Aug 07, 2010

Just as civil rights groups rejoiced at the landmark Proposition 8 ruling in California, a more subdued legal advancement on the same battlefront unfolded on the other side of the country. Two men convicted of the 2008 beating death of an Ecuadorean immigrant were sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. The bloody attack in Brooklyn was evidently driven by anti-Latino and anti-gay rage. The two men spotted José Sucuzhañay and his brother walking in an embrace after a night of drinking at a church party. They represented two easy targets for brutality: Latino immigrants–lately besieged by a wave of violence in the New York City area–and the LGBT community–besieged by various right-wing assaults as they assert their civil rights on the national stage. The sensational story, as recounted in the Daily News, displayed a twisted violent indulgence, girded by the irony that the attacker was another person of color:

Phoenix, who is black, had shouted anti-Hispanic and gay epithets at the 31-year-old victim before repeatedly whacking him over the head with an aluminum baseball bat after Scott had jumped out of an SUV and smashed him with a beer bottle. Sucuzhanay and his brother Romel were set upon as they boozily walked, arm-in-arm, home from a church party. Phoenix was in such a frenzy he appeared to convulse as he struck the defenseless victim with a bat, witnesses said. After leaving him mortally injured in the gutter, a surveillance image taken at a bridge toll booth showed him laughing maniacally as the pair drove to the Bronx for a night of more partying and skirt-chasing.

The attack touched two dimensions of the country’s civil rights crisis. In a sense, Sucuzhañay’s murder represents the other end of the spectrum of the "right to marry" debate–the core issue wasn’t merely access to a civic institution; it was the right not to be killed. Yet his death under a hail of anti-gay and racial epithets underscores that senseless brutality stems from the marginalization of any group, whether based on ethnicity or sexual orientation. The troubled term "hate crime," unfortunately, oversimplifies the psychological subtext. In the end, it’s more about the attacker’s sense of supremacy, than about the identity of the victim. In light of Sucuzhañay’s tragedy, the struggle to give LGBT people the right to a marriage certificate may seem more trivial. But Judge Walker’s ruling speaks to a spectrum of inequality that dehumanizes people on many levels, at the county courthouse or on the street. If we fail to hold the line on one tip of our framework of civil rights, such as the equal dignity of a couple’s union, then we erode the foundation of a more basic freedom: the right to be safe at night–no matter where we are, where we’re from, or whom we choose to hold.