Baltimore Beating Sparks Hate Crime Debate

Hate crime charges could be filed against a group of black teenagers who allegedly attacked a white passenger on a Baltimore city bus, causing serious wounds. Baltimore Sun reporter Gus Sentementes spoke with the victim and is joined by Baltimore radio host Craig Thompson to offer analysis and shed light on the public outcry.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up: Our monthly visit with the Magazine Mavens, editors of some top women's magazines. But first, we want to head to Baltimore, where a fight on a city bus about two weeks ago has people talking about race, hate and the media.

Nine black teenagers - middle school kids - allegedly attacked a white woman who was trying to find a seat on a Baltimore City bus. The teenagers, all 14 and 15 years old, were riding the bus home from school on December 4th when the woman, Sarah Kreager, and her boyfriend, Troy Ennis, tried to find seats.

Police reports say that one of the teens refused to let the two sit down and kept moving into empty seats to keep them from sitting. And when Kreager finally found her way into a seat, according to the report, the beating started. She suffered broken bones in her face and other injuries after being punched, kicked and dragged off the bus.

Her boyfriend and the bus driver were also beaten after they tried to come to her aid. For reasons we'll talk about in a minute, this story's becoming more than just another awful local crime story. But first, we want to hear more about the details of the incident from Gus Sentementes, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and Craig Thompson, an attorney and host of THE FRONT PAGE, a weekly call-in show on member station WEAA in Baltimore.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CRAIG THOMPSON: Hi, Michel. How are you?

Mr. GUS SENTEMENTES (Reporter, Baltimore Sun): Hello.

MARTIN: I'm great. Thank you.

Now, Gus, you've been covering this since the beginning, and you've talked to witnesses on both sides. So let's take each side in turn, if we can. What does Sarah Kreager say set off the beating?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: Well, Michel, it's - the information is coming out slowly. One of the problems is we haven't been able to get to all of the witnesses on the bus. They've been shielded by authorities. But I have interviewed and some other reporters here have interviewed Sarah Kreager. As often the case with police reports, the initial report is never comprehensive. I, as a reporter, never expect it to be totally comprehensive. There's always follow-up investigation.

So initially, what came out was that she was trying to get a seat on the bus, and some kids were just jumping in front of the seat and denied her a seat. After interviews with her and her boyfriend Troy, it's evolved into, you know, there was a dispute over a seat, allegedly, and some teenagers said, you can't sit there and, you know, we're saving this seat for a friend. And Sarah claims that she just didn't want anymore trouble with these kids on a packed bus, so she got up and moved away to sit closer to her boyfriend.

At some point a few minutes later, the boyfriend said something like, you know, these kids have, you know, worse manners than our 4-year-old daughter or something like that. And that angered - again allegedly - one of the teenage girls on the bus. And there was a confrontation. You know, punches were thrown. Sarah claims she never - she didn't even have a chance to actually defend herself because the fist-fighting began - she was just being buffeted on all sides by fists. And…

MARTIN: Okay, I want to hear what the kids have to say in a minute, because I know that you guys - at least you or some of the reporters have been able to talk to them, too. But first, the prosecutors are considering filing hate crimes charges. Does Sarah Kreager think race was part of this? Were racial words used?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: That's where actually - she's been actually - as a victim, she's been very temperate in her consideration of that. She - we've quoted her as basically saying she thinks race might have been a contributing factor essentially, but not necessarily the thing that started the whole thing, and it was really more about a dispute. And what it sounds like to me - my interpretation is a disrespect, a perceived slight, you know, possibly with her boyfriend, you know, remark being taken the wrong way and some teenager being offended by it. The worst…

MARTIN: It was a teenage thing.

Mr. SENTEMENTES: Yeah. So she's saying that there were racial epithets used, like white this or white that. But what authorities have to consider is is whether or not racism is really like a main motivating factor here or…

MARTIN: Okay. Let's get to - I want to get to that in a minute, but I want to take these issues in turn. What are the - you've interviewed or at least you or somebody at the paper has interviewed the parents or at least one of the kids who was involved in this. What did they say set off the attack?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: We talked to one of the girls who was charged, and they're basically saying that it was the victim and her boyfriend that started it. There were reports put out by the suspects' families that the boyfriend flashed a knife at one point during the confrontation. They insist that no racial epithets were used. That it was not a hate crime. That race is not a motivated factor. They say that Sarah, the victim, spit on them. But the victim says that she was spit on by one of the girls.

MARTIN: And if they say a knife was flashed, has a knife been found?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: No. And as far as I can tell, none of these juveniles who were arrested were ever treated themselves for any injuries. From an injury standpoint, it was a pretty one-sided type of confrontation.

MARTIN: So Craig, I want to bring you into this. I heard you talked about this on your show.

THOMPSON: Yes.

MARTIN: What did your listeners have to say about this?

THOMPSON: Well, it's interesting. The visceral response of my listeners was very similar to the responses of most people. It's a deplorable act. It's horrendous. Those types of events and those types of incidents involving babies shouldn't occur. At the same time, sort of the socially conscious listeners called and said, look, let's find out what happened. The - my colleague just indicated that we've heard at least three different stories and four very recently, with at least one report that it was Ms. Kreager who used racial epithets during the incident.

So the fact that these individuals are being touted as these horrendous thugs and implicating Robert Poole Middle School where they attended school, and the school had nothing to do with it, but the name is emplaced all over the place.

There's been a sense of let's find out what happened and then make a decision as to what we do, not only from a legal standpoint, but also from a social standpoint, a psycho-social standpoint with these young people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. This is NPR News.

And we're talking with Gus Sentementes, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and Craig Thompson, a host of a call-in show in Baltimore, about an attack on a woman on a Baltimore City bus that some are considering a racial incident.

Is there a racial divide on this? Because let me tell you how I heard about this. How I heard about this is from a listener to our program who wrote and demanded to know why we weren't covering this and compared it to the Jena Six, a case out of Louisiana where, of course, you know, I think everybody knows that these - those - it's become a sort of a bigger issue. These confrontations between some black teens and white teens in Jena culminating in the beating of this - a white student there has become seen as sort of a metaphor for an unbalanced criminal justice system.

And, as I think everybody knows, about 20,000 marchers went to protest the treatment of these teens because it's perceived that the criminal justice system is unfair to the black teens. And this was brought up in contrast to that.

And I also want to ask Craig, do you think there's a racial divide on this? Some people are saying that, well, because this was an attack on a white person, this is an example of sort of the media and society not paying due attention to the violence being perpetuated against the white person.

THOMPSON: I do. I believe there is a racial divide. It's very interesting. The reports that I've read recently indicate that Ms. Kreager was also homeless, and there haven't been discussions about teens beating on the homeless. But there has been this sort of wave of crimes against homeless individuals.

There was some report that the kids were making fun of the - Ms. Kreager because she had a black eye. So there's definitely a racial divide and I think that anytime that you see white, quote, unquote, "perpetrator," black victim, or black perpetrator, white victim, there's an automatic response and an almost taking of sides with regard to who's right, who's telling the truth and ultimately who's going to be punished.

MARTIN: Gus, let me ask you this. Is this true? Is Sarah Kreager homeless? And could that have been a factor in how she was treated?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: She's homeless. She's a recovering drug addict. She has a couple of children who are being cared for by DSS, the Department of Social Services. As far as I can tell, I've, you know, she's got - I think she's had one encounter this year with the police for trying to sell a couple of pills on the street. I don't think she has any violent…

THOMPSON: And has an upcoming trial date on it.

MARTIN: Was she - did she report that they were - kids were making fun of her personal appearance?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: No. She never said anything like that. It was really just this confrontation of these kids wanted her seat. They were telling her that they owned the bus. Unfortunately, what we're here stuck here with - because it's come out since that there is no video tape surveillance of what happened on the bus.

But when Sarah Kreager was making these statements to authorities and making these statements to myself when I interviewed her extensively, she kept telling me, quote, "That's why I'm happy there's a tape, because who would be an idiot to antagonize 25 youths?"

So she's making all these statements to prosecutors, to police, to me, to other reporters, believing that her actions would be - were caught on tape, you know? And so, like, when we're trying to figure out where the - you know, what semblance of the truth is being told, I - you know, I take that into account into trying to assess a person's veracity.

MARTIN: Okay. Craig, I'm going to ask you, because you're an attorney. As I discussed earlier, apparently, this is being investigated as a hate crime. What is the standard for whether something is a hate crime or not?

THOMPSON: Well, the issue is intent. And so a hate crime is also known as the bias-motivated crime. It occurs when a perpetrator or an assailant actually targets an individual, and - because of his or her membership in a social group. And that's defined by race, class and any number of other markers. So if a person intends to harass, intimidate, cause fear in a group of people, an individual or class of people by their actions, that would be sort of a textbook definition of a hate crime.

MARTIN: Gus, last question to you. As I understand it, there's some 381 crimes on the transit system this year. It carries some 250,000 riders a day. Most of the crimes are property crimes. Is that considered a lot? I mean, do, generally, people consider the Baltimore transit system safe or not?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: This is the problem. It's generally considered pretty safe. I know - I personally know a bunch of people who ride the bus. And my wife used to ride a bus for years. She felt very safe on it.

But the problem whenever a couple of incidents happen when - which has happened in the past month, actually - is when you just have a couple of egregious, serious incidents, it really sort of fuels this perception that it's, you know, just chaos on the buses.

But when you peel that onion back another layer, what we're picking up from riders, from readers is that there is some concern about these buses that have relationships with city schools. And so, like, when school gets out, the city buses pick up kids from school. So there's a lot of unease nowadays of how safe some of these particular buses are, and whether the school system and the MTA should be doing more to sort of nip certain types of poor behavior in the bud.

MARTIN: Gus Sentementes is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Craig Thompson is an attorney and host of THE FRONT PAGE, a weekly call-in show on member station WEAA in Baltimore.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. SENTEMENTES: Thank you.

MARTIN: And will you keep us updated on this?

Mr. SENTEMENTES: Definitely.

THOMPSON: Indeed.

MARTIN: Just ahead, we will have more on the Baltimore beating case with a hate crimes expert, and, how this year's massive recalls are affecting toy drives across the country.

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