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Is A Beating In Detroit A Hate Crime?


A Missouri man is facing charges for allegedly killing three people at Jewish centers in the Kansas City suburbs over the weekend. The details about that shooting are still coming in. But early reports indicate it may have been a hate crime.

Hate crime is a specific legal distinction, and it also happens to be in headlines in Detroit as well. There, a man was viciously beaten after he hit a boy with his truck. The man got out of his vehicle to check on the boy, and that's when he was allegedly attacked by a mob of people. The boy is now home and recovering, but the driver is facing an uncertain recovery. We're not sure if he will recover.

Several people have been arrested, and police say they're looking into the attack as a possible hate crime. The driver was white, the people accused of attacking him, black. Joining us now is Quinn Klinefelter. He's senior news editor at WDET in Detroit. Also with us, Jerome Vaughn. He's the news director there at WDET. Welcome to both of you.


JEROME VAUGHN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

HEADLEE: So, Quinn, give us the - just the bare-bones details of what happened. This boy, as I understand, ran out in the street in front of a gas station?

KLINEFELTER: Yeah, darted out, by all accounts and by the security video, without any warning, just right in front of this guy pulling out with his truck. He hit him and then actually stopped, and by all accounts was doing a good deed. He stopped, came back and said, oh, the poor child - was trying to see what he could do to try to save him.

At that point, people began to descend on him - as many as a half-dozen or more people - and began beating him severely to the point where, as you say, he's been in a hospital, in and out of consciousness and just barely beginning to pull out of it at this point. The boy himself suffered only a broken leg.

And it would've been a much worse attack probably, except that a nurse actually was watching from high above in a different building, saw the incident and went down to try to help the boy and then turned and began shielding the driver from the mob. It was a flash mob of the worst sort.

HEADLEE: And it was - let me be clear here on race because we're talking about a hate crime, Quinn. The driver was white. The boy was African-American. The mob of people was African-American, and the nurse that saved him was African-American.

KLINEFELTER: Correct, all of the people that have been charged at the moment age anywhere from 17 to 30. The person being charged with a hate crime - ethnic intimidation - is a 16-year-old, driver was about a 54-year-old white guy.

HEADLEE: Jerome, help me understand the mood of the community in which something like this could happen. What would cause this kind of reaction to this incident, which in maybe any other street, might be a tragic or painful but unnotable incident?

VAUGHN: Well, right now, there's a lot of speculation about why exactly it happened. But a couple of key words keep coming up. One is rage. I think the other one is hopelessness - that these people at the gas station saw this kid get hit, and there was this rage that elicited itself. And they took it out on Steve Utash, the driver of the truck.

So a lot of people have been trying to analyze, OK, why has this happened? Is this - does this have to deal solely with race? Did they solely attack him because he was white or was it because they saw someone from the neighborhood get hit, and they thought it was carelessness? That's something that we're still really trying to piece together at this point.

But that rage is a key part of it, and hopelessness, I think, is another word that a lot of people are talking about, that it's easy to get angry when you don't have anything else to occupy your mind.

HEADLEE: And ironically, Jerome, some of the reports that we've seen is that the community reaction after all of this has kind of been to unite both blacks and whites together in Detroit in denouncing this particular event and what may have lead up to it. Is that fairly accurate?

VAUGHN: I think exactly right. There was a big church service last week where people of different denominations, people of different ethnicities came together to say, hey, this is not what we want our city to be about, to recognize that Steve Utash tried to do the right thing, tried to help the boy and that the response of the people at the gas station was absolutely the wrong thing to do.

There was also a call across all denominations to preach about it in their religious services over the weekend, to say, hey, this is not how we respond to things in Detroit when things go slightly wrong.

HEADLEE: Quinn, what will feed into the decision by law enforcement to approach this as a hate crime or just an assault?

KLINEFELTER: Well, the state statute says a person is guilty of what they call ethnic intimidation, which is the official words for hate crime, if they maliciously with specific intent try to harass or harm somebody because of their race, color, religion, gender, etc.

In this particular case, apparently the 16-year-old is the only one that actually said that he was mad in part because it was an African-American child hit by a white person. The other four that have been arrested so far and charged with assault with intent to murder had never made those claims.

So that was why the prosecutor brought this particular hate crime charge on the 16-year-old because he was the one - who was turned in by his parents, by the way - because he was the one that said that, I was mad in part because it was white guy.

HEADLEE: Jerome, we already know - for many people who watch the news in Detroit, we know that there is often a schism between Detroit itself and its surrounding suburbs. Is there a fear that this could make it worse? Could it be played out in the suburbs that Detroit is not safe for white people?

VAUGHN: Yeah, I think that's exactly the right word. Fear is predominant in this situation in a number of ways. There's fears that people who have racial stereotypes will use this to confirm their stereotypes - see, there's a reason I don't go to Detroit, or there's a reason that this race or this race acts the way it does. And there's a real fear about that.

You know, this racial baiting really mushroomed on the web in the days afterwards, and really there was a lot of calling - why isn't this a hate crime, why isn't this a hate crime - by whites against - calling for African Americans to be charged with a hate crime. So there's been a lot of that going on. I think there's a lot of fear that this is going to mushroom out of control in a number of other ways in that folks in the city are very angry.

The city's dealing with a bankruptcy. The area is changing very rapidly. And there is a lot of uncertainty going on, and I think that's why there was such a strong reaction right away from individual citizens as well as from law enforcement and from city officials to say, hey, this is not the way to go. And it's really started to have an impact.

HEADLEE: And, Quinn, we only have a minute left, but when might we see this go to trial for these defendants?

KLINEFELTER: They're coming back at the end of April for some more hearings to see where it will go from there. And from that point on, it depends. You know, it's not unique that an African-American is charged with hate crimes.

There were several who were charged in the wake of the Trayvon Martin incident. But at the same time, it is something that's somewhat unusual. And so, you know, where it goes from here and whether any of those types of charges are applied to anybody else, you know, and the old cliche remains to be seen.

HEADLEE: Quinn Klinefelter is senior news editor at WDET in Detroit, and Jerome Vaughn is the news director there. Thanks so much, guys.

KLINEFELTER: Thank you, Celeste.

VAUGHN: Always good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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