WHILE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA MEDIA weren’t eager to cover the Long Beach Halloween hate-crime trial, they were more than ready for the January 26 verdict — and any subsequent violence — as requests by camera crews flooded in to Judge Gibson Lee, who denied them all.
Even as journalists and spectators crowded Lee’s courtroom to hear, if not photograph, his guilty verdicts against nine of 10 black juveniles accused of beating three young white women on Halloween last year, the stereotyping that dogged the racially sensitive trial still rumbled on, just beneath the surface.
Long Beach police planned for violence in case the black teens were found guilty, setting up extra security at the courthouse, some city parks — and even at Polytechnic and Jordan high schools, where the defendants were students.
But high school kids in Long Beach did not overreact, prompting Chris Efychiou of Long Beach Unified School District to remark, chuckling, “Most of our kids were more concerned about finals than the verdict.”
By coincidence, all high schools in Long Beach closed early on verdict day — at 12:30 p.m., marking the end of finals. But the Los Angeles Times gave things a much darker spin, stating: “The judge’s pronouncement was deliberately set for Friday afternoon, after high schools had been dismissed for the week.” In fact, the clerk’s office confirmed to the L.A. Weekly, the trial began at 1 p.m. throughout the case, just as it did on the day the judge delivered the verdict, hardly a “deliberately set” hour.
But that sort of uncomfortable media stereotyping was par for the course in this trial, which illuminated not just the kids’ hate crime, but the reactions of adults — officials, media, others — as they struggled to discuss whether black children should be held to standards that, if the tables were turned, would apply to any mob of 30 or 40 white kids accused of beating three black women.
Black homelessness activist Ted Hayes, sadly assessing how things turned out, told the Weekly he met with the black parents of several accused kids, whom he advised to avoid a trial and harsh sentences by admitting wrongdoing by their kids. His own street advice to “these out-of-control black kids” would be, he says, “Stop ‘cutting the fool.’ ”
THE PARENTS REFUSED TO REACH OUT to the district attorney, Hayes says, painting their children as innocents and enlisting “camera jockeys like Eddie Jones,” and other black leaders who argued without apology that the kids had done nothing wrong.
Says Hayes, “The black community messed this up.”
Kelly M. Bray, a self-described eyewitness to the mob that gathered just before the beatings, and who left a comment on the Long Beach–based Press-Telegram Web site, wrote that a crowd of girls was openly bullying passersby that night and getting away with it, “crowding the sidewalk and forcing people with strollers and small children into the street, telling them, ‘I ain’t movin’.’?”
Hayes believes the trial was used by the establishment in Long Beach, where Halloween crowds have grown meaner each year, to send “a message to the black community: Your kids can’t come over here and act out.”
After the verdict, observers tried to explain what led to the attacks. Karl Rowe, an uncle of one of the convicted juveniles, wondered if hip-hop culture could have fanned cultural misunderstandings about the anti-white slurs hurled at the beaten girls.
On the other side of the fence, Joe Hicks, a black mediator with the nonprofit group Community Advocates in Los Angeles, while agreeing that hip-hop and gangsta rap often refer to “white boys” and “white bitches,” nevertheless insists that “hip-hop isn’t to blame for the beatings those young women got.”
After Lee’s ruling, a throng of TV crews focused on the defense attorneys, community activists, and friends and family members of the perpetrators, led by Eddie Jones, president of the Los Angeles Civil Rights Association, chanting, “No justice, no peace,” and Tony Muhammad, regional minister for the Nation of Islam, declaring that not all of the children were guilty.
THE FATHER OF ONE 14-YEAR-OLD female perpetrator told the cameras, “Obviously, something happened. I apologize to the victims as a father, and I sympathize.” A black mother, however, insisted, “To the general community, our kids did not play a part in this. They were there, but they did not fight.”
If the nine convicted youths were merely swept up in the melee, why haven’t they spoken up and named the real perps?
Cameron Bonner, who works in gang abatement at Common Unity Respecting Everyone, fears that an unspoken code of the streets — even in middle-class black communities — hurt the teens. Says Bonner, who believes a gang of older black boys is to blame, “The kids got caught up in a shit storm, and they know: Once you open your mouth, you gotta come home someday.”
Project Islamic Hope activist Najee Ali — who was so upset by media underplaying the unusual story and so angry at the black leadership for pooh-poohing the mob behavior that he held a march for the victims — wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly, “The saddest thing was watching Eddie Jones and other South L.A. activists breaking their necks trying to get in front of the TV cameras . . . embarrassing the rest of the black community by saying the witnesses and victims of the beatings had lied about what happened.”
Agreeing with Hayes, Ali wrote that the black parents’ “public lack of remorse and contrition towards the victims helped turn public sympathy against the defendants” and scuttled a deal offered by the D.A. — probation with no jail time.
Meanwhile, Hicks, of Community Advocates, who is also a former director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, says that while some black parents may have been out of touch when they insisted “their kids do nothing but homework, run track and go to church,” other parents had “the same street-culture attitudes that their kids showed.”
Adds Hicks, regardless of the light-touch media coverage, “Gang involvement is all over this case . . . They have the right kids. There might be more out there, there were as many as 40 kids, but these kids were involved in the beatings.”
TRACY MANZER, THE PRESS-TELEGRAM reporter who covered the case more thoroughly than any other reporter in California, says that while the black teens were lauded as scholars and athletes, even by some media that never checked their facts, Judge Lee will see a different side in reports from probation officers who are interviewing teachers, coaches and others.
While one girl was touted as having received a USC track scholarship, USC’s track coach told Manzer that her grades hadn’t been good enough. Moreover, several of the kids have records of assault and threatening behavior. All of this goes to Judge Lee for sentencing consideration.
Manzer says that before the verdicts, she made an effort to avoid “[trying] the suspects in the paper,” but is now researching a story on the teens and their families.
Community activists on both sides, contacted by the Weekly, were disappointed over the lack of national coverage of what was, essentially, a man-bites-dog tale. Most believed that, had it been a white-on-black crime involving a mob of 30 white kids, the media would have been all over it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, one of the rare national columnists to write about it, argued early on that it was unprecedented to see such young girls charged with such a vicious crime, making it a national story. And on January 27, Times reporter Joe Mozingo described the case as having caused a big stir, writing, “As the case went to trial, it resonated beyond Long Beach, generating heated discussion on talk radio and drawing national media attention.”
But in fact, the lack of national attention was one reason the story interested Steve Holmes, Washington Post deputy national editor for domestic affairs. He told the Weekly he saw it as a national story and was intrigued by the black-on-white aspects of the hate crime. Yet like The New York Times, the Post ran a single story.
Doug Otto, attorney for the three white victims, continually urged his clients not to follow the news, and worked “like crazy to keep them off the news.” He needn’t have tried so hard — few were interested.