Martinez was stunned at what she said she heard and saw on her front lawn in July: music blaring racial slurs and monkey sounds as strobe lights flashed on her home.
The lights and sounds have terrorized the mother and her family for not one, two or three days but several months — and police say they are unable to do anything to stop the neighbor’s actions. The woman says the n-word has been repeated in the music so often that her young son has asked her what it means.
“Whenever we would step out of our house, the monkey noises would start,” Martinez told TV station WAVY. “It’s so racist, and it’s disgusting. … I don’t even know how else to explain it.”
The news of the alleged abuse, and Virginia Beach police saying the neighbor’s actions “did not rise to a level that Virginia law defines as criminal behavior,” has taken off in recent days. Residents and critics have called out the city and the police department for not doing more to protect Martinez and her family, and local officials said they “cannot let that stand in Virginia Beach.” The outrage has heightened after a clip posted Tuesday to Twitter of the strobe lights, slurs and monkey noises being played at Martinez’s home was viewed nearly 2 million times as of Wednesday afternoon.
Some critics have suggested that the neighbor, who has not been publicly identified by authorities, should face hate-crime charges, saying the case should fall under the state’s hate-crime law. Although police say the neighbor’s actions are “not criminally actionable,” the Virginia hate-crime law suggests that this instance could be.
Legal and law enforcement experts interviewed by The Washington Post said that while police could do more to help protect the family, bringing about a hate-crime charge remains a high bar to clear, even with the amount of evidence and the duration of the alleged abuse.
“You can walk a fine line and not cross over into something ‘actionable,’ ” Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, told The Post. “This neighbor knows exactly how to walk the line, but it doesn’t make his actions any less harmful to the family.”
Kim Forde-Mazrui, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, said police held “a fairly privileged perspective” to think of a situation involving the repeated used of the n-word and monkey noises as “a sticks-and-stone matter.”
“The city and police department are being cowardly for not intervening and, if necessary, bringing charges so that a court can decide whether this is constitutionally protected,” Forde-Mazrui said.
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) on Wednesday condemned the tableau in a statement to The Post, saying it was “unacceptable and will not be tolerated in Virginia.” Herring said the Virginia Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights has been in touch with Martinez’s family and is working to “put a stop to the alleged abuse.”
“Any race-based harassment and discrimination in housing is illegal in the Commonwealth, and my team and I will take any and all measures to assure that it does not happen in Virginia,” Herring’s statement said. “No one should ever feel uncomfortable or in danger within their own home because of the actions of their neighbors.”
Neither Martinez nor the neighbor immediately responded to requests for comment Wednesday. The Post is not naming him because he has not been charged with a crime.
The Virginia Beach Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a Sept. 29 statement, police said they had responded to several complaints involving the neighbor over the past several months.
“As appalling and offensive as the neighbors’ behaviors are, the city attorney and Virginia magistrates have separately determined that the actions thus far did not rise to a level that Virginia law defines as criminal behavior. This means the VBPD has had no authority to intervene and warrants were not supported,” police said. “We will closely monitor the situation, investigate complaints and, within the limits of the law, help this family with this most unpleasant situation.”
The alleged abuse against the family, and the police saying they’re unable to do much about it, comes at a time when Virginia Beach has been criticized for not doing enough to support its residents of color. Rapper and producer Pharrell Williams said he was not bringing back his “Something in the Water Festival” because the city had “toxic energy.” Williams, who grew up in Virginia Beach and started the festival in 2019 to help “ease racial tension,” criticized the city for its role in the death of Donovon Lynch, his 25-year-old cousin, who was fatally shot by a police officer in March.
Lynch’s death was ruled a homicide, but no one has been charged in the shooting. His father has sued the officer, Solomon D. Simmons, who is Black, and Virginia Beach in a wrongful-death lawsuit seeking $50 million.
In the Salem Lakes neighborhood, a resident’s music had been a regular presence since the Martinez family of five moved there in 2016, according to the Virginian-Pilot. Shortly after she made a noise complaint in July, Martinez noticed cameras pointed at her home and lights that appeared to blink after being triggered by a motion sensor.
As music played whenever the strobe lights went off, she noticed another sound accompanying her whenever she or her husband arrived or left the house: monkey noises.
Another call to police to complain about the monkey noises and lights escalated the situation more recently, she told CNN. The music, strobe lights and monkey noises were still there, but taunts involving the n-word were new. Video shows that at least one of the n-word skits was pulled from an episode of the Comedy Central show “South Park.”
Martinez was even more heartbroken when her children, who she said are “terrified” of the neighbor, came to her to ask about the word that kept being broadcast in front of their home.
“They came to me and said, ‘Mom, what’s that?’ ” she told WAVY. “I didn’t subject my kids to that. I didn’t think they would ever have to learn what this means.”
Yet when she went to authorities the next time, she was told that the neighbor had not assaulted or threatened her family, which meant there was little police could do.
“According to the law, it’s just a statement or a phrase or he’s not doing enough or bodily harm or threats to my family,” Martinez said to the TV station. “Why does it have to go that far before something that can be done?”
According to Virginia law, a hate crime is broken down three ways: “a criminal act committed against a person or his property with the specific intent of instilling fear or intimidation in the individual” because of their identity; “any illegal act directed against any persons or their property” because of their identity; or “all other incidents, as determined by law-enforcement authorities, intended to intimidate or harass any individual or group” because of their identity.
But what often prevents cases such as the one in Virginia Beach from rising to the level of hate crime is the narrow legal window in which authorities have to prove that these acts were intended for someone in particular, experts said.
“If you’re generally looking at the totality here, then we’d say, ‘Look, this appears to be a hate crime,’ ” Schrad said. “If you send out recordings of racial slurs and monkey noises and this woman says there is a specific intent of instilling fear and intimidation, then police have to prove that intent. Law enforcement would have to be able to investigate and prove that this is specifically intended at this one family and intended to intimidate them.”
She added, “This is why cases like this would slip through Swiss cheese.”
Schrad said that if the strobe lights were on the home and no one else’s house, authorities could have a hate-crime case based on that specific intent.
Forde-Mazrui, who said the Supreme Court has long protected speech that’s racist in nature, wondered whether the racial epithets and sounds could be classified as “fighting words” — a category of speech not protected by the First Amendment that can “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” The law professor questioned whether there was a societal double standard as to which victims were protected by authorities.
“Without speaking directly to the motives of Virginia Beach or its police department, would authorities be willing to intervene if a White family was being subjected to this kind of thing in the privacy of their own home and on their own home property with language that would be as insulting?” he asked. “This will seem like an anecdote of a bad apple to a lot of people, but incidents like this happen every day in America.”
Martinez said the ordeal with her neighbor has left her feeling as if “there is no one to fight for us.”
“It feels hopeless and sad,” she told CNN.