By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"This city has made great strides since the Rodney King riots" in 1992, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said in an interview. That unrest started in South Central Los Angeles 15 miles away and spread to neighboring Long Beach, destroying more than 300 businesses there.
City officials often refer to a 2000 USA Today study of the 65 largest cities that found Long Beach to be the most diverse. Of Long Beach's 462,000 residents, 36 percent are Latino, 33 percent white, 14 percent black and 12 percent Asian.
Twenty-three hate crimes were reported in the city in 2005, down from 66 in 1998. The drop is steeper than an overall dip in Los Angeles County in the same period. So the Halloween beatings came as a shock.
Laura Schneider, 19, Michelle Smith, 19, and Loren Hyman, 21, were out for a night of fun on a street in a mostly white, middle-class neighborhood where residents deck out their houses for Halloween, prosecutors said. About 40 black teenagers, also in the neighborhood to trick-or-treat, began throwing lemons and small pumpkins at them and taunting them about their race.
When a boy cried out his hatred for whites, "the crowd surged" and began to beat the women, Deputy District Attorney Andrea Bouas argued in court. Hyman's jaw and eye socket were fractured, and Schneider suffered a concussion.
Parents of the arrested teenagers do not dispute the injuries, but they contend that police arrested the wrong children.
Defense testimony in court has bolstered their argument. Neighbors who called 911 on Halloween night reported black boys, not girls, beating the white women. Most of the arrested teenagers were identified by a passerby who recalled their clothing, not their faces. Her credibility was seriously eroded on the witness stand.
"Our hearts go out to the victims," Allene, the mother of a 16-year-old defendant who would not give her last name to protect her daughter's identity, said at a public meeting here Saturday. "We pray for them, because this should never happen to anyone. But our kids are incarcerated based on hairstyles, earrings, dark clothing. . . . It's a rush-to-judgment case."
But the victims are "absolutely convinced that these defendants are among those who attacked them," said Otto, their attorney.
"We haven't heard that anyone is planning on moving, so eventually when this is over people will get back to life," said Anitra Dempsey, coordinator of the city's human dignity program's youth and gang task force. "When the case was first reported there was outrage that this would occur anywhere, and particularly here. [But] Long Beach is one city, and we are not going to be divided or defined by this one event."