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FBI investigates two assaults as hate crimes; St. Louisans say tension is palpable

Protesters are greeted by lines of state and county police during a demonstration march on the Ferguson police station on August 11, 2014.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI

The St. Louis office of the FBI says it is investigating two assaults that occurred last month as potential hate crimes. In both cases, assailants mentioned Ferguson during the attack.

  • On March 23, a white man was beaten on a MetroLink train by two young African-American men, one of whom asked the victim what he thought of the Michael Brown shooting, according to a video captured by a bystander. Court documents allege the defendant asked the victim to borrow his phone. Although county prosecutors did not charge the suspects with hate crimes, the FBI says it is continuing to investigate the situation.
  • Two days later, former Cardinals outfielder Curt Ford, who is African-American, was called a series of racially disparaging remarks and beaten by a white man at a gas station, according to court documents. The assault is being pursued as a hate crime by local authorities. 

Two incidents in the same week do not make a trend. But people around the region report feelings of heightened racial tension following unrest in Ferguson. Duringa poll at a recent Ferguson Commission meeting, more than half of attendees said they didn't think racial tension will ever be fully eliminated in St. Louis.

“When there is a big incident like that, people who are going to be violent use it as an excuse,” said Saint Louis University criminologist Dyan McGuire. She said she believes Ferguson has become a code word for deep-seated racial tensions that have long existed in the St. Louis region.  

“They’re going to be violent about something. If there’s a high profile case they somehow want to be a part of it, or they think it’s going to get them more attention if their violent action is wrapped up in that cloak,” McGuire said. She pointed to the murder-suicide in New York last December when a man shot and killed two police officers and himself just a week after a grand jury chose not to indict the officers responsible for Eric Garner’s death.  

“When traumatic incidents occur, in the process of finding that common ground, you will have segments of society that become more radical. I think you see that on all sides of this conversation,” said Andreas Rengifo, a criminologist from Rutgers University who spoke at a panel on urban policing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis last week.

Criminologist Andreas Rengifo, of Rutgers University,
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Criminologist Andreas Rengifo, of Rutgers University, used to teach classes at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His research includes the comparison of international policing practices and crime control.

“[The St. Louis assaults are] something that I see as extreme, and frankly, outliers that need to be handled and managed,” Rengifo said.

Authorities in the St. Louis region investigated fewer than two dozen bias-related incidents each year between 2010 and 2013, according to Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI. (Some incidents may be double-counted, if one crime involved multiple biases.) Biases that constitute a hate crime include race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. 

Further evidence of rising tensions

At his St. Louis office, regional NAACP president Adolphus Pruitt logs dozens of voicemails on a lined notepad. Each one has a story: a man who tried to rent an apartment in Oak Hill claimed he was denied based on his race; a mother whose teenage son was beaten by white students at a party in St. Charles; a law student who was stopped by police, because “there had been a burglary in the area.”   

“We don’t have a week go by that we don’t get some sort of call or complaint,” Pruitt said. “It’s an extremely toxic environment right now.”

There are also messages full of hate. Pruitt played one over a speakerphone—a man who claimed to be a “white, decorated marine” who was driven off of the road by a “group of f***ing [racial slur].”

St. Louis NAACP president, Adolphus Pruitt.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis NAACP president, Adolphus Pruitt.

“Start policing your own, or I f***ing will,” the voicemail threatened. Pruitt sighed, and deleted it. 

"It's not going to go away. It's not going to go away anytime soon," Pruitt said. "We need to have a significant focus on getting these young folks together, and making sure they have the ability to interact with people of different ethnic backgrounds, different cultures. The world is getting smaller, and so is this region."