By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
The junior high school next to the sprawling green of Marine Park lets out and kids stream onto the sidewalk. It's 3:15 on March 30, one of the first warm afternoons of the year, and some of the kids move into the park to hang out. Five or six black eighth-graders saunter across the basketball court where a group of white tenth-graders from St. Edmund's Catholic high school are playing.
Trash talking erupts, followed by reciprocal face smacking. People are running and falling. The fight expands, spilling out of the park and across a residential street. A crowd circles before calls to police and parents put an end to the 20-minute spectacle. Moments later, the white girls finger the victors to the cops and five black girls are booked for misdemeanor assault.
The question of who threw the first punch, and why, is now before Judge Stewart Weinstein, in Kings County Family Court. The trial, which began June 6, is expected to last at least until the end of the summer, but so far testimony seems to show that the junior high schoolers (who, after all, had home-court advantage) beat the spit out of the private school girls. "They were kicking her," a St. Edmund's girl testified on the first day. "She fell and I bent down to help and they kicked me in the head."
If the city's lawyers had followed the lead of the arresting cops and charged the younger kids with misdemeanors, lawyers say they might have pleaded guilty and received the slaps on the wrists reserved for first-time juvenile offenders. That was not to be. After pressure from the St. Edmund's parentswho took turns writing letters and enlisting support from elected officialsthe Corporation Counsel attorneys ended up deciding it wasn't a fight at all, but an attack motivated by deep-seated racism.
Saying the black girls had called the white ones "honky crackers," and shouted "black power" and "Martin Luther King," they charged them under the state hate crimes lawraising what might have been relatively minor counts to alleged felonies that included gang assault.
Democratic state senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn was one of several officials to answer the white families' call. "The parents came to me andI responded," Kruger says. "Anyway, this is a small town. Word gets around." And how. Far from this suburbanized neighborhood in South Brooklyn, bloggers picked up a single article in the community paper, fueling a kind of online lynch mob as racists latched onto the story. The ugliest, most unreadable commentary can still be found on newnation.org and davidduke.com.
New York City Law Department spokes-person Kate Ahlers declined comment on what exactly convinced city lawyers the white parents were right, but police concede that their judgment was overruled. NYPD spokesperson Jennara Everleth tells the Voice that "at the initial police investigation it was determined that no racial slurs were used. But later on, Corp Counsel determinedthey did their own investigation and they found that there were, I guess."
Now the black girls each face a maximum year and a half in juvenile detention. Fearing for the girls' safety, their parents and lawyers forbid them to talk to the press. The kids who did talk asked to remain anonymous. "It wasn't racial at all," says one of the black girls. "It was all blown out of proportion. I just wish our side could be heard."
Edith DeMaio, mother of one of the St. Edmund's girls, has a theory. "The black girls are angry," she says. "Maybe they think they're getting back [at society], but that's not the way."
Parents like DeMaio may see the fight in black-and-white, but it isn't clear the kids did. After all, DeMaio's daughter and her friends didn't tell the arresting officers they'd been targeted for their whitenessthat came later. As for the black girls, two of the accused insist that a "Spanish" girl started it. None of the St. Edmund's girls are Latina, but the black girls think some are.
"That Puerto Ricanor whatever she wasthat Spanish girl kept running her mouth, talking about 'Get out of my neighborhood,' " says one 13-year-old defendant.
A group of older white teens, mostly seniors, weighed in behind the junior high school one afternoon last month. When they went to school here, they said, they also thought of the basketball court as theirs. The courts may be open to the public, but for a few hours on weekday afternoons, it's the de facto junior high yard. The private school girls would have had to go out of their way to hang out there, Carl, 17, reflected.
"Marine Park fights are about territory," he said.
If you ask some of the probation officers and bailiffs in Brooklyn's family court about this case, you'll hear them refer to it as that "nonsense hate crime thing" or that "bullshit hate crime."
Only the defense lawyers will speak on the record. "When we're kids, we get into fights," says attorney Paul Aronson. "I don't advocate it. No one can deny they didn't get the shit kicked out of them." It's a lot of noise about nothing, he says, since the injuries weren't severe. According to hospital records submitted to the court, black eyes, scratches, and bruises were the extent of it, he says.