The Face of Hate
By John Brizzolara
A SHARP SPRING EVENING in Hillcrest. Two men walk out of a restaurant and bar. Within moments, it’s clear they’re being followed. One of the men bolts. The other stands his ground. Seconds later he is being savagely beaten. Bottles crack into his skull. Boots and shoes are launched against his ribs. His cries are muffled as he doubles over. And then a length of chain is brought down hard against his back.
A summer afternoon in Point Loma. The checkout line at Home Depot. A woman snarls the word “nigger” at the man ahead of her. She doesn’t realize who she’s speaking to—though she will soon find out. All she sees is the man’s color.
A December afternoon at Mission Beach. Skateboarders rattle by. Golden youths play volleyball in the sun. Children’s laughter accompanies their dance away from the waves. Ex-Navy SEAL Kendall Martin, who is black, is passed by a bicyclist with a shaved head, a goatee and a .44 magnum. The man with the revolver fires as he shouts a racist slur. Martin raises his hand and it explodes in blood and pain. He is lucky: The bullet has broken the skin and only fractured his hand—but not until it has passed through the fatty tissues of his stomach and thigh.
In February, a University City dentist takes a phone call at home. The message: His storefront office at a shopping mall has been vandalized by someone with a half-baked knowledge of German and Yiddish and a full-blown case of hate. The ignorant vandal has spent hours scrawling semi-literate epithets and backward swastikas in Magic Marker on the dentist’s window.
In America’s Finest City, crime was down last year in nearly every category. In ugly contrast, hate crimes were up. Up by nearly 17 percent over 1994.
A March 18 headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune screams: “A WAR AGAINST HATE: Ugly, infamous case ... crimes of prejudice.” The “infamous case” involves five men who attacked and brutally beat a group of people they supposed were Mexicans. The case was stalled for more than three years while attorneys and judges argued the issue of what constitutes a hate crime.
KNSD-TV features a story on violence against minorities in Oceanside. The D.A.’s office resorts to gallows humor. Oceanside, cracks a deputy, is changing its official slogan to “STILL SAFER THAN SARAJEVO.”
Is San Diego a bastion of bigotry, a contender for Hate Crime Capital of the United States? Are San Diegans really that different from folks in Toledo? Atlanta? Milwaukee? The good news is no, we are not. The bad news is also no, we are not.
Matt Weathersby, assistant to the chief of police, says, “In 1994, we had 119 arrests for hate crimes in San Diego. In 1995, we arrested 139 for the same offenses.” Weathersby, who’s black, came very close to arresting a woman last year for what technically constituted a hate crime.
“I’ve got an old Victorian home,” he says. “I’m always working on it, and when I do, I’m dressed like a bum. And when I’m working on my house, I live at the Home Depot, Sports Arena store. I got something from the special-order desk, paid for it and left. Then I realized the clerk had given me the wrong change, so I came back.
“By now, there’s five or six people in line; everybody takes a number. The clerk finishes the transaction and calls me over. She knew she had just finished with me. But the lady behind me says, ‘No, I’m next. You f---ing niggers need to learn to wait your turn!’
“Now, I’m dressed like a bum, right? But I whip out my badge and say, ‘San Diego Police; you’re under arrest.’ I give her my best Joe Friday. I can be real cool when I say, ‘You’re under arrest for violation of California Penal Code 415.3.’” But he’s content only to confront the woman; he does not arrest her.
He continues, describing Penal Code 415.3, which falls within the category of hate crimes: “‘Any person using offensive words inherently likely to provoke an immediate and violent reaction.’ In other words, somebody walking down the street saying, ‘You a--hole.’ They ought to be arrested. You might say words are only words, but the key is ‘offensive words inherently likely to provoke an immediate and violent reaction.’ Now that doesn’t mean I must react violently, you see. But the point is, this stuff happens all over town. You should talk to John Graham and Gilbert March.”
POLICE OFFICER JOHN GRAHAM, who’s gay, has been a victim of hate. One day last winter, as he walked across Pearl Street in La Jolla with a friend, Graham was nearly run down by the driver of a silver Jaguar.
“Someone inside the car shouted, ‘Faggots!’ We were just two guys walking down the street,” says Graham. “Nothing unusual in terms of clothing or mannerisms. We could have been any two guys just walking along.”
But they weren’t. And Graham’s training as a police officer kicked in. He looked for cover. Parked cars. Anything. He didn’t draw the pistol he carries while off duty. But he might have. Two tons of metal careening toward you with a mad bigot behind the wheel might be considered life-threatening. And drawing a weapon and using it, simple self-defense.
“The driver made a U-turn up the hill and came back. He was screaming out the window, ‘Scared ya, didn’t I?’” Graham says, “My gun was in a fanny pack. I ripped the Velcro open when I saw there were three of them in the car. But you can’t just pull the trigger on a car bearing down on you—you might injure bystanders.”
Graham identified himself as a cop and ordered the driver to pull over. “I looked inside the car, and here’s three big, muscular men who appeared to be military. But I think I kind of scared them, too. The driver took off, but I got the license plate number.
“I called police dispatch. Officers went to the registered owner’s house, and there was the car and there were the people. I identified the driver and made the arrest. But he was military; he was shipped out to Okinawa, and so prosecution never happened.”
Graham has produced a video called Hate Crimes: Don’t Be a Victim. The video consists, in part, of an interview with Gilbert March, the man who was beaten with chains and bottles in Hillcrest. March is a clean-cut, mild-mannered 35-year-old.
“They were coming up behind us,” says March, who was leaving Hamburger Mary’s on University Avenue with a friend. “As we crossed the street, one of five attackers yelled out, ‘Faggots!’ I knew there was no way we were going to get to the car.”
His heart in his throat, March told his companion, Joe Borqui, “Let’s not go to the car.” Borqui started running; March didn’t.
“The attack started, and I tried to cover myself to take the least amount of damage possible,” he says. March actually remembers little of the beating. “I do remember thinking I was going to die,” he says. “I was certain their intention was to kill me.”
All but paralyzed by fear, March grabbed one of his attackers by the lapels of his bomber jacket. “I thought, ‘I’ll take one of them with me, by God!’ And I spun him around several times. The next thing I remembered I was on the ground. I had five lacerations, two on my scalp. Some on my face. I ended up with about 20 stitches.”
A photograph of March taken shortly afterward illustrates the attack’s brutality. His face is hideously bruised, swollen, bloody.
“Somebody must have got me really good with the chain, because this happened on a Friday night, just before midnight,” he says, “and even on Sunday I had a perfect imprint of the chain on my back.”
Borqui, March’s companion, felt guilt. “Fear. Of course, I thought they might kill us. They would have killed Gilbert if there hadn’t been witnesses. I also felt intense guilt,” he says, “because I got away and Gilbert froze. I don’t feel guilty because I’m gay, but ... I felt angry at Gilbert for a while because he was caught. Angry because he got beat up and I didn’t. I know it sounds strange.
“Eventually you put it away, but you become very careful. In the end, I felt pity for those dirtbags. It’s like, ‘This is the best you’re ever going to be in your life, you poor bastards.’”
March spent four hours in the emergency room after the attack. He attended the hearings after the arrests. The five charged were from East County and ranged in age from 14 to 22.
Asked if he forgives his attackers, March says, “The 22-year-old [Leonard Schweitzer]? No, I don’t think I can forgive him, because up until the very end, when he was sentenced last November, he waffled back and forth on what he said, depending on what suited him. You know, from ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ to ‘He deserved it, he’s a fag.’ He didn’t really know how he felt about what he had done.”
One of March’s convicted assailants was sentenced to a “boys’ ranch out of state,” he says. The judge decided another minor, a 16-year-old, had little to do with the crime. “He got off,” March states flatly, “and he’s another one I can’t forgive, because all the others admitted to what they had done, whether they were sorry for it or not. He just wasn’t going to admit it.”
Schweitzer got eight years in prison. The 17-year-old was sentenced to up to 10 years with the California Youth Authority. The 20-year-old, James DeLong, spent about eight months in prison after being arrested the night of the attack in early 1995 and was released in October on five years’ probation.
The attack and its aftermath have left March philosophical. “Whether you are gay or straight, when you’re a victim of a hate crime ... if you let them frighten or intimidate you, then they win.”
TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD Kendall Martin is the black ex-Navy SEAL who was shot on the Mission Beach boardwalk last December. Vincent Lucero was arrested for the crime after two months as a fugitive. Not exactly a dramatic stand-off with the cops. He was found in Pacific Beach—hiding in a closet. He’s now awaiting trial.
Theresa Santana of the D.A.’s Hate Crimes Unit has advised Martin not to discuss details of the case, but he will say this much: “I think the guy is just ignorant. You go riding a bike down the boardwalk at that time of the afternoon with a cannon like that, what kind of state of mind are you in?
“I was lucky—the bullet bounced off a bone, my hip. I’ve got a hole in my hand and a hole in my thigh. I have no first metacarpal in my hand now. No knuckle. I didn’t see it coming until he pulled the gun out, maybe five seconds before it happened. I knew I wasn’t going to die. I just had belief that it wasn’t my time.
“I didn’t fall down. I had a $1,200 bike, and I wasn’t going to leave that behind,” he says, “so I walked over and got it and walked six blocks home and called the police.”
As for his assailant? “I don’t have any passion for him or against him. He’s just stupid. He didn’t know me. No, I don’t hate the guy, which frees me from the situation. I’ll leave it to the law.”
DENTIST RONALD ROSENBLATT has a thriving practice in the La Jolla/University City area. What he does not have is the ability to suffer fools gladly. Nor the inclination to be intimidated by them.
Last February, on a Sunday morning, Rosenblatt was phoned by someone at the shopping center where he practices. The caller had found “swastikas and anti-Semitic ravings in broken English and Yiddish. We don’t know exactly all of what it said, but you could see on it ‘DIE’ and ‘JEW DIE.’ You could read that. It was all written in black Magic Marker on the window.
“It must have taken a long time for someone to write that amount of writing,” says Rosenblatt, who sounds faintly disconnected from the act. Like a man who could be discussing a disappointing Padres game.
“I called Morris Casuto at the Anti-Defamation League, and he came up and said he thought he knew who had done this. He said the guy had never been this far south but was usually up around Escondido. Morris never mentioned the suspect’s name.
“We called the police, but they were too busy to come up that day. We just cleaned and scraped the window as best we could. There must have been between 50 and 100 words, with the accent marks and everything.”
Rosenblatt can think of no reason to have been singled out for the vandalism. Only that he’s Jewish.
“It didn’t frighten me,” he says firmly. “It pissed me off.”
If Rosenblatt could confront the man? “I would like to know what the problem is,” he says. “Why would you be compelled to do something like this? The act bothered me more than the damage.”
MORRIS CASUTO of the Anti-Defamation League, a very funny man with some unfunny concerns, asks, “Do you know what a hate crime is? If you and another guy walk over to Hillcrest and beat the crap out of somebody who appears to you to be gay, does that make it a hate crime? No. Penal Code 422.6 is the hate crimes section, and it addresses the utterance of mere words alone. If you called somebody a ‘no-good, black son of a bitch,’ that doesn’t make it a hate crime, either.
“Generally a hate crime is associated with another crime. If someone broke into your house and burglarized it, that’s burglary. But if in the commission of that crime they [defaced part of the house and] wrote, ‘Fags must die,’ that would be a burglary and a hate crime. The burglary is the felony. The hate crime is the misdemeanor. The hate crime would add a little extra to your sentence.”
To the victims, a hate crime doesn’t feel like a misdemeanor. And to Casuto, acquiescence to a hate crime is as heinous as the crime itself. “Silence on the part of the community in the face of these acts is a kind of stamp of approval,” he says.