“It wasn’t their priority”

By Michelle Chen May 04, 2009

We may never know their true motivations, but according to a jury in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, whatever drove a group of teens to beat a Mexican immigrant to death last year, “ethnic intimidation” apparently had nothing to do with it. It began last summer in the old mining town of Shenandoah. Harsh words between Luis Ramirez, 25, and a group of four local boys, including the convicted teens Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarsky, 17, (two others were also arrested and charged) escalated into anti-Mexican epithets and a physical confrontation. Despite efforts by his friends to intervene, Ramirez was soon lying on the sidewalk, his skull cracked open by a kick to the head, and his assailants had bolted off into the night. To the jury, those facts left some room for debate. CNN reports that a jury of six white men and six white women found the two youth guilty of "simple assault," but not guilty on charges of third degree murder, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, or ethnic intimidation. Activists were not only appalled by the decision, but fearful of what kind of precedent it could set. Gladys Limon, a spokeswoman for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (which is pushing for federal action on the case) stated:

"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… In this case, the message is that a person who may not be popular in society based on their national origin or certain characteristic has less value in our society.”

That sentiment has been echoed countless times in courtrooms and legislative halls, from the killing of Mathew Shepard to the case of Vincent Chin—the Chinese American man beaten to death in 1982 under a similar hail of anti-immigrant hostility. Even more telling is the eyewitness account of Ramirez’s friend Arielle Garcia, in an interview with Democracy Now! last July, which exposed how brutality lingers in more insidious forms long after the lethal blow.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did the police say? Did the police show up that night? ARIELLE GARCIA: Yeah, they showed up. First, the ambulance did, and they took our friend to the hospital. And about five minutes later, the police came, and I guess they were looking—I mean, we kept telling them where the kids ran, but they didn’t—they didn’t run towards there. I mean, they kind of stayed where it all happened. And I told them the names and everything. AMY GOODMAN: And, well, this was more than a week ago. Have they been investigating since? ARIELLE GARCIA: Yeah. And like, still nothing. AMY GOODMAN: Why did they say—when you showed them the direction that the kids had run, why did they not go after them at the time? ARIELLE GARCIA: I don’t know. They told me that it wasn’t their priority right now. … AMY GOODMAN: What was their priority? Did they say that to you? ARIELLE GARCIA: No. They were pretty rude, some of them. Not all of them, but most of them were pretty rude to me… Like, I told them where the kids ran, and they wouldn’t go after them, and they told me that “Somebody said there was someone with a gun here, and we have to search your car.” And they searched Victor, like they put his hand behind his back, and like they put him against— AMY GOODMAN: Victor is your husband? ARIELLE GARCIA: Yes. AMY GOODMAN: The boys ran off. Was it all boys? ARIELLE GARCIA: Yeah. AMY GOODMAN: Were they white? Were they Mexican? ARIELLE GARCIA: Yeah, they were all white. AMY GOODMAN: All white, and you know them all? ARIELLE GARCIA: Uh-huh.

The Ramirez verdict comes as Congress moves forward on legislation to enhance the federal role in addressing hate crime, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act. Conservatives are quick to raise fears about the supposed criminalization of free thought. Yet whatever your position on the legislation, as Patrick Eduaburn on The Moderate Voice points out, tackling hate-motivated violence is just one aspect of seeking accountability. The lack of a satisfying conviction in the Ramirez case reveals the inadequacies of current criminal justice responses to hate crime. But cracking down harder on tragic violence won’t stamp out what Ramirez’s death symptomizes: corrosive inequality pervading immigration and social policy, mediated not just through jurors and cops, but lawmakers as well. Image: Latina-Voices.com