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 parents—who took turns writing letters and enlisting support from elected officials—the 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 law—raising 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 and—I 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 determined—they 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 whiteness—that 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 Rican—or whatever she was—that 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.
That’s contrary to the news accounts that continue circulating online. Two weeks after the fracas, the Brooklyn Skyline ran a lead story slugged “Non-Bias Attack” featuring emotional quotes from the white mothers describing their daughters’ injuries. Embedded in the dramatic prose—”witnesses say the attackers called their victims ‘white crackers’ during the bloody melee”—was an implied critique of local cops, who had just announced to a seething South Brooklyn town hall meeting that their investigation turned up no racial bias.
The following week the paper printed a slew of mail boiling with invective—much of it from outside New York. A note from the editor said the most “obscene and unprintable” letters were withheld.
Here are excerpts of ones the paper did print:
“If the police department does not arrest all those involved in this ape-assault, then we as white people our safety is doomed,” wrote Paul DeLaiarro, location not printed. “We do not have the same protection as these sub-humans. You should be ashamed of where you live if you are white and this is your police department.”
Or this, from Sean Verste of New Zea- land: “One would have to ask what would have happened if 30 white youth attacked four blacks while shouting David Duke’s name.” If you can’t see his point, he con-tinued, “you deserve to be slaughtered by the ever breeding, ever eating cancer of blacks.”
Or this, from A.K. of New Jersey: “When the parents fail, and the school system fails, it’s time for hard-core enforcement. Whether by courtroom or a baseball bat, whether by a prison sentence or a burning cross, it has to be done.”
Freelance reporter Marianna Hernandez, who covered the story for the Skyline, says she took some heat from the cops for implying their judgment was off, but she doesn’t take responsibility for firing up the bigots. “I am not a racist, but this is something that happened to these [white] girls and people responded to us,” she says. “We don’t agree with everything our readers write in—I heard David Duke wrote in but I didn’t read that one. I didn’t want to.”
When the trial opened, only two St. Edmund’s mothers were there to hear the testimony of the first complainant—a sturdy-looking 15-year-old brunette—as she described smacking a 14-year-old black girl in the head after the younger girl struck first. The black girl punched her with a closed fist, she explained to the prosecutor in short, clear sentences. She told the judge a black boy eventually stood between them, but her adversary “reached around him and slapped me in the head.” She said she started yelling at the black girl and called her “an animal.” The girl called her “a bitch,” she said. “Then we started hitting each other again.”
Smiling, the prosecution’s first witness scanned the cramped room packed with bored-looking lawyers. Sitting in the back were at least 10 stone-faced black mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and uncles. Sandwiched between were six painfully neat 13- and 14-year-olds, the five original girls and a boy arrested weeks later, all sitting rigid in their chairs, hair freshly done.
The St. Edmund’s parents are still annoyed with the cops. “The police just didn’t listen to our girls,” Joanne Eisen says. “They were willing to just dismiss it as a playground thing.” One father, who asked that his name not be used in order to protect his daughter’s privacy, says cops interrupted his daughter and her friends before they could say anything about the epithets.
That 13- and 14-year-olds would invoke the civil rights movement—or use vintage slurs like “honky”—makes observers like City Councilmember Charles Barron, of Brooklyn, incredulous. “I wish these kids would talk about Martin Luther King and some black power,” he said, chuckling. “As for ‘cracker,’ they wouldn’t have even known the meaning of that word. Anyway, the police do thorough investigative work. They would’ve gotten that.”
Of course, whether the alleged slur was ‘cracker’ or ‘white bitch’ is immaterial, if you think a racial put-down necessarily equals racial hatred. The St. Edmund’s parents are certainly of that belief. But it’s hard to know if their daughters are as convinced.
This case is a classic illustration of why the hate crime statutes are problematic, says Bronx lawyer David Feige, an outspoken critic of them. “These laws sound good—that’s why they were passed. But they serve no purpose except to give prosecutors an even heavier bat. They don’t deter criminal acts in the least. It’s complete political posturing.”
The mere mention of the phrase “hate crime” in relation to the case makes many white neighborhood folks roll their eyes. Retired public school guidance counselors Barbara Lewis and Frances Pearce are disgusted by the fuss. “The Caribbeans play cricket here,” says Lewis. “Black and white boys play basketball together, the Italian men play boccie. It’s opportunistic for some people to make it a race issue. Kids can be nasty, kids can be horrible. I’m sure words were exchanged, but did it begin because of race? I don’t think so.”
The white kids hanging out on the basketball court directly behind the junior high have a less rosy and coherent view of Marine Park race relations. Still, they agree that labeling the fight they’ve heard so much about seems like a stretch.
A pale, petite 16-year-old alpha girl was more than certain about that. “Racial things happen here, but that wasn’t racial,” Jackie says. “It’s just the fact that those girls were being bullies and the Catholic girls were showing off.”