NEW YORK—On a winter night in 2008, Jose Sucuzhanay was walking home from a Brooklyn bar with his brother. The two Ecuadorians had their arms around each other, which is common in Latino cultures.
Three men pulled up in a car, shouting at them. His brother ran, but Sucuzhanay was hit in the head with a beer bottle. One of the three men then beat his head with an aluminum bat, while the other two kicked and punched the father of three. He died from his injuries two days later.
The brutal murder of Sucuzhanay in December 2008, and the murder of Marcelo Lucero, also of Ecuadorian origin, in November 2008, prompted widespread concerns of New Yorkers calling for a stop to hate crimes in New York City. Yet public attention and efforts to do something to stop the crimes soon subsided with little change.
New Yorkers now have another chance. Following the hate-motivated shooting of Marc Carson on May 17, city officials have again responded with speeches and marches. Whether the city can find a lasting solution to the broader spectrum of hate crimes still remains a question.
“There is a potential [for there] to be a little bit of a ripple effect, but only if the conversation is a broader one,” said Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism. “When it comes to civil rights, there isn’t consistent, aggressive monitoring and enforcement, and so it does ebb and flow depending on what’s in the news.”
Gross noted that in Long Island, where violence against Hispanics brought attention to hate crimes, including the murder of Lucero several years back, there has been little improvement.
The number of hate crimes in New York state decreased from 703 reported in 2010, to 554 in 2011, according to a 2011 report from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Yet, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups across the country has increased by 70 percent since 2000.
According to Gross, any lasting solution to hate crimes will need to focus on narrowing disparities that keep communities segregated. “We certainly know that the New York region, it’s very racially segregated, and there are continuing actions that perpetuate the racial segregation,” she said.
“There are a lot of structural impediments to inequality, and it’s often those things that don’t get much attention,” she said. “If addressing hate crimes can also translate to thinking about what are those policies and practices that are on an ongoing basis treating people differently, then that is always a positive thing.”
A Difficult Distinction
Proving a hate crime in court can be a difficult task, since the burden of proof is on witnesses and the alleged victims.
Mark Bederow, New York defense lawyer and a former prosecutor in Manhattan, said one of the most difficult points is that a hate crime is defined by a person’s mental intentions when committing a crime. They need to prove the crime was completely or mostly based on the victim’s race, religion, creed, or sexuality.
“It can often be a very difficult thing to prove, and there is a lot of blurry area,” Bederow said. “Sometimes you get crimes that are committed and people say things in the committing of the crime that are inappropriate, but that may not be why the crime was committed.”
The difficult nature of hate crimes makes them both complicated and controversial. “It’s the kind of thing where prosecutors and police need to be very careful making the allegations,” he said.
In 2008, there were waves of attacks against practitioners of the Chinese meditation practice, Falun Dafa, in Flushing, Queens, and while at least a dozen arrests were made, nearly all the attackers got off with a warning.
According to Amardeep Singh, co-founder of The Sikh Coalition, while the problem of hate crime is getting attention, not enough is being done for religions that remain the most victimized groups.
The Sikh community has been targeted for hate crimes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York. Sikhs wear turbans and grow beards as part of their culture. Yet, while Sikhs are from India, they are often targeted for hate crimes by individuals believing they are Arabs.
According to Singh, one of the main problems they face is that the federal government does not track hate crimes against Sikhs. “You cannot solve a problem you’re not tracking,” he said.
Singh has hope that New York’s renewed focus on hate crimes will also reduce the crimes against religious groups.
Schools in New York City will be adding a lesson about hate crimes and bullying. The announcement was made by mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Chancellor Dennis Walcott, according to the Gotham Schools website.
Quinn said, “What we are going to do is push forward and make sure we do the organizing, education, and public safety work we need to do to make sure we don’t go backward,” according to Gotham Schools.
Singh said education will be a good start, noting that he and others are typically harassed by younger people who accuse him of being a “terrorist” based on his appearance.
“[It’s the way] a lot of these issues start,” he said. “People carry on discrimination from what they learn when they’re younger.”
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