Racist Incidents Prompt Long Island Legal Debate

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Racial harassment is prompting a debate in Suffolk County, N.Y. African-American leaders want the incidents prosecuted as hate crimes. Law enforcement officials and legal scholars say they don't qualify as hate crimes under the law.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Black residents on the east end of Long Island in New York State have charged local authorities there with allowing hate crimes to go unpunished.

Police and legal scholars say that what seems like a hate crime to the public may not be a hate crime under the law. And now there is growing movement calling for the state's hate crime laws to be changed. From New York, Gene Bryan Johnson reports.

GENE BRYAN JOHNSON reporting:

Suffolk County, about 40 miles east of New York City, is comprised of fishing hamlets, ocean beaches, sprawling farmland and mostly private homes. The population is about 80 percent white, 10 percent Latino and seven percent African American.

On January 31st of this year in the Town of River Head, three white students at the Harry B. Ward's Technical and Academic Center bound the hands of a black doll, tied a noose around its neck and taunted the class's only two black students. Many of their classmates thought the incident was funny, and laughed so much they caught the teacher's attention.

Ms. VALERIE CRISELL(ph) (Assistant Superintendent, East Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services): The students were hauled into the office by the principal and assistant principal. They were interviewed and they admitted, you know, what they did.

JOHNSON: Valerie Crisell, the Assistant Superintendent of the East Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Ms. CRISELL: I don't think they understood the significance of what they did. Their response was it was just a prank. You know, like what's the big deal.

JOHNSON: It was a big deal to school officials, who decided that a crime might have been committed.

DAVID HIGGERMILLER(ph) (River Head Police Chief): Well, we tried to prove that it was a bias crime, however it didn't wind up being chargeable as a bias crime. JOHNSON: That's River Head Police Chief David Higgermiller, who points out that the three boys, two 17 and one 16 year old, were charged with second-degree harassment, a violation that does not meet New York's minimum definition of a hate crime. When word got out that the maximum penalty upon conviction would be 15 days in jail, people were outraged. It became the main topic of conversation in places where black folk congregate.

Unidentified Female #1: And nothing was done.

Unidentified Female #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Female #1: That's what I heard.

Unidentified Female #2: Our community is appalled.

JOHNSON: Hilda Stilley(ph) owns Mira's Beauty Salon on East Main Street. She works on Antonia Turner's(ph) hair as both women recount what happened to their friend, Joey, a few months ago.

HILDA STILLEY (Owner, Mira's Beauty Salon): He works for the town. And someone put a noose around a doll and put it on the back of his work truck or truck that was in front of him and was pulling it down the road. And he saw it and got very offended behind it and he went to the tell the police...

ANTONIA TURNER (Patron, Mira's Beauty Salon): It brings to mind the men that the white guys drug behind their truck out in some parts of Texas.

JOHNSON: Turner is referring to the 1998 murder of James Byrd in Jasper County, Texas. Three white men slit Byrd's throat, chained his ankles to the bumper of their pickup truck and dragged the dead body for three miles before leaving the dismembered remains in front of a black church.

Turner and Stilley believe Long Island's doll incidents are part of an ongoing series of attempts to intimidate the black population. They bristle at the fact that the white co-worker who taunted their friend Joey was suspended from work but not arrested.

Stilley, who moved to Long Island 20 years ago from New York City, says she is no longer surprised by such incidents.

Ms. STILLEY: I went to rent a house in East Marion, it was a white owner, and when the people found out that a black face was gonna move into their area, they burned her house down. And they said there will be no niggers in this area. And this was like in 1983. I was told that there was prejudice. But I never witnessed it, because me coming from the city, it was shocking to know that this still exists.

JOHNSON: Hilda Stilley came to Long Island because she wanted to take advantage of good schools, economic opportunity and the beautiful landscape. She quickly learned that access to certain neighborhoods was limited. Just recently, black and mixed-raced families who bought homes in white sections of Suffolk and Nassau counties were met with racist graffiti and calls for the return of Hitler.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy says enough is enough.

STEVE LEVY (Executive, Suffolk County): When you have situations such as these in an, in an effort to intimidate people of color, that, that should be seen as a hate crime. And hopefully, our laws can be changed to erase any ambiguity.

JOHNSON: Levy was addressing dozens of church leaders and community activists from across Long Island who came to the county offices to express concern. He's working with the Suffolk County attorney to draft legislation that would strengthen the law. New York University Law Professor James Jacobs cautions, however, that people should not expect tougher prison sentences to stop racism.

JAMES JACOBS (Professor, New York University): Because it tends to be in the jails and in the prisons where we have our most virulent intolerance. I don't think we can punish our way towards a more tolerant society.

JOHNSON: There has been no evidence found to suggest that the rash of racially-motivated incidents on Long Island is being coordinated by a hate group. But that doesn't stop Riverhead's blacks from wondering who's gonna put a stop to it. From their point of view, racial tensions have been percolating just beneath a picturesque surface for decades. Something must be done, they say, before things get worse than they already are.

For NPR News, this is Gene Bryan Johnson in Suffolk County, New York.

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