The FBI is investigating possible hate crimes in St. Louis after a woman was assaulted last week by three teens near Bevo Mill allegedly because she is Bosnian.
The woman told police she was driving when three men walked in front of her vehicle, ordered her to stop, struck her car and asked where she was from. When the woman said she was European, police said the men called her a liar, and told her “You’re Bosnian. I should just kill you now.”
That comment would cross the line between crime and hate crime.
That attack came less than a week after Zemir Begic, a 32-year-old Bosnian man, was attacked by four teens near Bevo Mill. At least one of the attackers hit Begic with a hammer. Begic later died of his injuries, but police have said they do not believe he was targeted because of his ethnicity. Some in the Bosnian community have doubts. So does Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois.
“If I steal your wallet, my motive is the money and I get compliance from you if I bully you or harass you. I get compliance when I get your wallet,” Aroesty told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “If I’m smart, I take your money, drop the wallet and run. If I hate you because I don’t like your color or your ethnic background or your sexual orientation or your religion and I start attacking you, when do I get compliance? You’re not going to give me anything that’s going to satisfy me other than severe violence or potentially death. That’s why the murder of Mr. Begic, in my mind, is questionable.”
Aroesty’s organization also is investigating two cases in Kansas City: “We’re looking a a terrible incident against a 15-year-old Somali in the Kansas City area who was run over and subsequently died of his injuries. The question in that case will be whether or not the intent was anti-Muslim or whether there was another motivation. And then there’s another incident in the Kansas City area that happened on the morning of Halloween where an African-American man was killed, but the question may be actually that he was killed because he was gay.”
Hate crimes carry additional charges and punishments, but they also require a great deal of research and investigation.
“What is necessary is an awful lot of investigation. An awful lot of looking at witness statements. Doing things online. Trying to get a sense of that person’s role in the community and other factors that you can come up with that you can say these things happened because people were chosen as victims because of their connection to a particular group,” Aroesty said.
In St. Louis, the Bosnian community is in shock, said Imam Muhamed Hasic, CEO of the Islamic Community Center in St. Louis.
“In our community, many members are here who survived the genocide and the war,” Hasic said. “They find a place to call a home and feel secure for many years. They build a neighborhood. Now it’s really like a shock for all of us.”
Prosecuting Hate Crimes
“The misunderstanding is that hate crime happens all the time, and that hate crime prosecutions are happening all the time,” Aroesty said. “That’s not the case. They really are few and far between.”
According to FBI statistics for 2013, race is the most likely basis for hate crimes, Aroesty said.
In addition to the necessary investigation and research, prosecutors have to believe they can win a hate crime case, she said. In some cases, a prosecutor may pursue the underlying crime instead of the hate crime charge.
Hate crimes convictions do carry more severe punishments.
“Prosecution and punishment also could help the community to heal faster and also to keep safe,” Hasic said. “They’re going to feel that there is a system that is working to protect them and make them safer later on.”
Hate Crime Versus Hate Speech
People can say hateful things and be protected under the First Amendment, said A.J. Bockelman, executive director of Promo, a statewide organization that advocates for equality. Hate speech is not punishable, he said. If, however, those words are said during an attack, it escalates to a hate crime.
“From the LGBT perspective, you recently had a pastor in Arizona indicate that it should be OK to kill gays,” Bockelman said. “That’s a horrendous statement. He’s still protected, though, in saying that under his free speech rights, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t consequences for that. Some of those consequences include motivating some people that perhaps are not as stable into taking action on those words.”
“I think eventually we’ll get to the point where, the First Amendment notwithstanding, certain things that are said in texting or in tweeting or on Facebook will hold people accountable,” Aroesty said. “There’s a current Supreme Court case that is being heard that addresses this issue: Whether or not you can make certain threats and still be protected by the First Amendment.”
Ending Hate Crime
“Tensions are incredibly high right now,” Bockelman said, citing Ferguson and similar police-involved incidents that have divided communities, often along racial lines. “We’re seeing these kinds of things across the country. We’re seeing a polarization at a number of different levels.”
Hasic and Aroesty said community outreach can help bring an end to hate crime.
“Can we just simply figure out how to kind of take our bias, which we always have, hold it in check and find a way to outreach into the community?” Aroesty asked.
“I believe people should have more communication, especially in the neighborhood, in the schools,” Hasic said. Children should learn from a young age how to respect others, he said. “We can support each other more and build a safer neighborhood if everybody involved his time and effort.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.