We have been discussing the national debate over hate crime laws and the standard for investigating particular cases but not others as in the recent case out of Cincinnati. A new controversy has erupted in Chicago where a woman, Susan Pedersen, says that she was attacked in her car with her children in a black neighborhood by a mob yelling that she did not belong in the neighborhood. She is white. However, two alleged attackers were charged only with misdemeanor criminal damage to property. While the case has received relatively little attention and more details would be helpful, critics have charged that a black driver surrounded by a white mob in such a circumstance would have resulted in both a state and federal hate crime investigation. There is also a question of how the police and prosecutors have charged this case generally as a property damage case even without the alleged racist motivation of the mob.
The attack occurred near the University of Chicago where I went to school. The mother had just dropped a friend off at the University of Chicago when she stopped at a red light and found her car surrounded by several dozen young people. She says that they were yelling racial slurs about her being white and smashing her windows with the children screaming inside. The group even reportedly used a bicycle to smash the window when their fists did not suffice.
As I have mentioned in prior blogs, I often heard accounts of white students and family members entering into some nearby neighborhoods and being surrounded and even roughed up due to their race. One of my sisters and a friend once went into such a neighborhood by accident and two African-American officer pulled them over to tell them that they could not stay in the neighborhood because they would likely be targeted due to their race. Likewise, when I was in college, I drove off campus and was similarly confronted at a red light by about five men who told me to get out of the neighborhood and tried to open my door while calling me racial names. For the record, this was one of only a couple times that I have faced such racial anger and I would not attribute that conduct to the vast majority of neighborhoods with predominantly African-American populations.
There are obviously countervailing stories of African-Americans facing the same response in some white neighborhoods. Some of those cases have received national attention and resulted in hate crime prosecutions or special enforcement efforts.
The question is when such crimes should be defined as hate crimes if they are motivated by race. It is not clear why some cases are immediately characterized as possible race cases and subject to federal intervention while others are not. Conversely, some have criticized the hate crime laws more generally because of what is perceived as undefined standards in enforcement as well as the ability to charge crimes directly linked to the conduct like assault. The laws also raise free speech issues in some cases.
My greatest concern is that an attack on a mother and children in a car is viewed by the police and prosecutors as simply a misdemeanor property offense and not assault or other crimes. Even if this is not to be investigated as a hate crime, it was clearly an assault on this family if the account is true. Thus far, the police and prosecutors appear to be undercharging this offense as a purely property offense in my view. Even removing the race element, there is still a car with broken windows and a terrified family who merely appear to have driven down the wrong street. Of course, if there are additional facts that have not been reported like some traffic dispute or altercation, we should be told about it. If this mother’s account is true, the handling of the case seems deeply troubling.