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washingtonpost.com > Nation



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.
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"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.
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"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."