We Are Staten Island: Community Eyes Opened on Anti-Immigrant Violence
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 12, 2010 - 5:03pm
After nearly a dozen attacks on immigrants, people in Staten Island, NY are working to organize a response. Two ministers are collaborating to begin dialogue in a tense atmosphere, a mile long march was held to support a gay Hispanic couple that was attacked, and local civic leaders have launched a unity campaign called “I Am Staten Island.”
When 18-year-old Christian Vazquez was walking home after his late-night shift as a busboy earlier this month in Staten Island, NY, four or five young men assaulted him with punches and anti-Mexican slurs, as they made away with $10. The assault was the latest in a wave of at least 11 attacks against Mexicans since April, resulting in multiple arrests of mostly Black youths for robbery, harassment and assault.
On August 6, the Vasquez case was the first of the recent anti-Mexican attacks to be charged by the Staten Island grand jury as a hate crime. Local leaders and police are concerned about rising racial tensions in the community.
With extra police patrolling the area and the Mexican government sending representatives to educate residents of their rights, local ethnic and religious leaders are scrambling to defuse the tension by organizing meetings and vigils to unify the community. On August 7, Staten Island Pride, an LGBT group, organized a community-wide rally in support of a gay Hispanic couple recently assaulted at a local White Castle restaurant. (Video below from WABC-TV, New York.)
Earlier, Reverend Terry Troia, executive director of the interfaith group Project Hospitality in Port Richmond, NY and the immigrant rights organization El Centro del Inmigrante brought more than 300 people together in a unity rally after a video of a brutal attack on a Mexican named Rodolfo Olmedo aired on the internet.
At the vigil, other immigrants came forward and spoke of beatings that they never reported to the police out of fear.
Rev. Troia says attacks against immigrants are not a new problem in Staten Island. In 2003, she documented 21 incidents of bias crimes that were ignored by police or dismissed as minor day-laborer assaults or fabrications by the victims, she says.
In response, Rev. Troia started a community-based anti-violence task force and a youth program called Eye Openers for Youth Against Violence. One task force member was Christian Vazquez, the busboy who was assaulted earlier this month. Rev. Troia says it was Vazquez’s ability to articulate what happened to him that moved the grand jury to hand up the first hate-crime charge, even though the most recent spate of violence goes back to April.
Reverend Tony Baker, pastor of St. Philip’s Baptist Church in Port Richmond and a collaborator with Rev. Troia, told the New York Times that Latinos, African Americans and whites need to come together and say, “Enough is enough,” adding, “I think we’ve gone to sleep on the conditions we find ourselves in,” he said. “And we woke up in the midst of a racial war.”
Rev. Troia is organizing dinners where African-American and Mexican families meet and eat together. She doesn’t believe the attacks reflect deeply held anti-immigrant feelings in the African-American community. Instead, she says, “the attackers are disaffected youth with prior arrests who have internalized negative messages about other people.” Her hope is to bring youth together to build bridges through dialogue and mutual understanding.
Local politicians, including Staten Island Councilwoman Debi Rose and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, are also getting involved through the "I Am Staten Island" campaign.
Businesses are posting "Safe Zone" signs where people in danger can get help. Jim Mulvaney of the NY State Human Rights Commission says the police are taking a proactive stance by sending Spanish-speaking officers who “reach out and tell the community that if you get beat up or robbed, you can call us.” Other community events planned include meetings for the Interfaith Council at the Unitarian Church, the Port Richmond Anti-Violence Task Force and the Eye Openers for Youth Against Violence at St. Phillips Baptist Church.
“How do you sustain community response?” Rev. Troia asks. “The work of building tolerant communities is not over when the crimes are over. We need a long-term commitment to unity to see real change.”