Long Beach Awaits Hate-Crime Verdict
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- A crowd of black teenagers and three young white women stood on a street corner on Halloween night. A male voice cried, "I hate [expletive] white people!" The crowd surged, and someone cracked one of the whites in the head with a skateboard, dropping her to the ground. That much is not in dispute.
Who is responsible and how this could happen in the port city of Long Beach, which prides itself on its diversity and tolerance, has been the subject of arguments in court, civic forums and private living rooms here ever since.
Ten defendants -- nine female and one male, ages 12 to 18 -- were charged with assault for allegedly beating and kicking the women, giving one 12 facial fractures and another a concussion. Eight of the teenagers are also charged with a hate crime. Their trial has dragged on since early November.
This week attorneys are expected to finish closing arguments and a judge will render verdicts. The city is waiting uneasily to find out whether it will live up to its self-image as a unified, tolerant community or dissolve into racial hostility.
City leaders have reacted to the racial flare-up with alacrity, sending out volunteers to the victims and organizing community forums to denounce racism.
Yet some African Americans express frustration that city leaders have not been more visible in their community. Some are also angry at the local newspaper, which initially covered the victims' story that they were attacked, without reporting that some witnesses called it a mutual fight, or that the arrested teenagers have no criminal history and are accomplished athletes on a local high school track team.
As the Rev. O. Leon Wood Jr., the black pastor of the North Long Beach Community Prayer Center, said: "When we're in a situation where whites are on the receiving end of a problem, there appears to be a little more sensitivity added to the issue."
Meanwhile, conservative radio hosts took up the cause of the victims, calling Long Beach a dangerous place for white people.
And the victims, their attorney said, have been fearful of retaliation. During the course of the trial, a witness for the prosecution had her car rammed repeatedly by another vehicle while she was in court testifying. Police called it gang-related witness intimidation.
"I'm very nervous about what's going to happen when there are verdicts," said Doug Otto, the victims' attorney.
Long Beach, like neighboring Los Angeles, has a history of racial tension to match its diversity. In the 1920s, it had a Ku Klux Klan chapter and redlining that kept housing segregated.
The port is now the second-busiest in the country, and the city is a hodgepodge of bobbing oil derricks, leafy streets and run-down apartment buildings filled with newly arrived Latinos, working-class blacks and whites, and refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.