There are renewed questions about how the line is drawn between hate crimes and conventional criminal cases this week after a group of black teens beat a white Kroger employee into unconsciousness as part of a “fan mob.” We recently discussed similar objections in the Utash case where a group of black men also beat a white driver to death. Critics are comparing these and other cases to the rapid deployment of federal lawyers and investigators in the Fergusan case and the recent opening of a civil rights investigation as a possible hate crime. However, the distinction in this case is that police have noted that there was an African American victim even though you can hear references to the race of the first victim. The controversy is only the latest over the use of hate crime charges and how the line is drawn in launching investigations into racial elements of certain crimes. The distinction between race or rage as a motivating element can be difficult to discern in criminal cases.
The brutal attack occurred on Saturday night when a mob of black teens swarmed a Kroger grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee and proceeded to beat two store employees and one customer to the ground. The group had emerged from a restaurant in the same strip mall and immediately attacked a 25-year-old man as he left his car in the parking lot and headed for the grocery store. When two store employees ran to the man’s aide, the black teens brutally beat them as well while he can hear people cheering and laughing.
Some people were upset by the refusal to investigate the matter as a hate crime and the response of Memphis Police Department Director Toney Armstrong who called the video “extremely troubling to see how many young people were involved, especially on the heels of last week’s youth forum . . . Last night’s events clearly demonstrates a lack of parental controls and if warranted these parents will also be held accountable.” The refusal to even investigate the racial element to the crime angered many viewers of the video, but police insist that this was more of a thrill attack than a race attack.
The difference in cases however can be hard to discern from such videos. For example, the same double standard criticism was raised with another video that went viral this week of a white couple being brutally attacked by a group of African Americans. An assault in downtown Springfield Missouri was called a hate crime against Meredith J. Cole, 19, and Alex J. Vessey, 23, who suffered serious injuries after they were assaulted by six black males. However, Cole herself on a Facebook page says the attack was not racially motivated. Indeed, she admits to uses the n-word after the attack in anger. The video is shown here.
The issue for some is the absence of an investigation in cases like the Kroger attack for hate crime as was the case in other attacks like the earlier controversy in Baltimore or recent “knockout game” cases. I believe that there are good faith distinctions to be drawn in these cases, particularly in Springfield. However, there remains an uncertain line in defining certain crimes as hate crimes while others as conventional crimes. It is a charge that has long concerned civil libertarians due to its ambiguity in some cases. The issue for critics is not whether these cases should be defined as hate crime but whether the crime allows for too much discretion and subjectivity when these crimes could be simply charged as serious felonies in their own right. Yet, these laws were intended to address cases where the victims were singled out due to their racial or religious or sexual orientation characteristics — a clearly worthy goal. The greater problem has proven the gradual expansion of hate speech charges as opposed to hate crimes and the impact on free speech. Despite the outcry in these controversies, I think that these two cases have a plausible distinction that it was not race but anger or raw mayhem that characterized the attacks.