06 August 2008

Hate, Murder, and Small Town Football

On July 12, Luis Ramirez was viciously kicked and beaten by at least six white teenagers in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The attack left him bleeding, convulsing, and foaming from his mouth. He died of head injuries two days later, the imprint of his crucifix still indelibly stamped into his chest by an attacker's boot. He was 25 years old.

Three of the attackers were finally charged for the crime on July 25th. Colin Walsh, 17, who punched Ramirez in the face, causing him to fall and hit his head, and Brandon Piekarsky, 16, who kicked him in the head after he lost consciousness, were charged as adults with homicide, ethnic intimidation and related offenses. Derrick Donchak, 18, who apparently chased Ramirez down and tackled him, was charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and related crimes.

Luis was engaged to Crystal Dillman, with whom he was raising three young children. Luis supported his family by working two jobs: one in a factory, the second picking strawberries and cherries.

Despite the fact that there were eyewitnesses to the brutal attack -- including a retired police officer and Arielle Garcia, a friend of the couple who went to school with the attackers and named them to police -- it took two weeks for charges to be made.

Each of the eyewitnesses heard racial slurs directed at Ramirez throughout the fight, yet town officials were not convinced that the attack was racially motivated.

Retired Philadelphia police Officer Eileen Burke, who lives on the street where the fight occurred, told The Associated Press she heard a youth scream at one of Ramirez's friends after the beating to "tell her Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah, or you're going to be laying next to him."

~The Morning Call

Now, you all know my dad was a cop. Cops, in general, don't go around telling tall tales about racially motivated attacks in their communities. They'd prefer that racial disputes never happened, regardless of their personal views on anything. They are not prone to go around crying wolf about this, trust. So if a cop says this attack had racial motivation, guess what? Most likely, she's not saying that just for the hell of it.

The investigating officers, though, were not so keen to listen to witnesses, even those who could actually identify the perpetrators. Check out Democracy Now's interview with eyewitness Ariella Garcia. She went to school with the attackers. Knew them by name. Saw where they ran.

The police, however, decided to stay and search her husband's car for guns. Her husband is also -- you guessed it -- Latino. So instead of going after the white attackers whom an eyewitness named and pointed out the direction of escape, the police stayed to search the witness's car for a nonexistent gun, and rough up her Latino husband a bit.


Shenandoah is a small coal town of 5,000 about 80 miles from Philadelphia. All six of the young men who carried out this crime were on the high school football team.

I went to high school in a small farm town of about 6,000 in southern Ohio. Football was big doin's, let me tell you. Friday night lights, baby, nothing like it. Of course there's high school football where I live now, and I'm at most games because of the kids. But here, it's just a high school thing. Most fans not directly connected with one of the high schools are more interested in the Seahawks or the Husky-Cougar college rivalry.

Small town football though, that's different.

It's a community thing. The whole town comes out, every Friday. In my town, there was the fish fry early in the season, second only to the county fair as far as social events. Later in the season, even the smaller surrounding towns would turn out on Fridays to watch us march our way to State, game by game. Our football team was the pride of that town. Hell, the county. Those boys got free tickets at the local movie theater, and free pizza slices at the Wig-Wam, so named to match our high school's mascot, the Indians. (I know. That's another post.) Anyway, our football players were local heroes. If they got caught driving too fast while cruising on Saturday nights, the cops - whom we all knew by name - would issue a stern warning with an admonition to "pay that off with a win this Friday, y'hear?"

The basketball team enjoyed notoriety too, but there's just something about football in a small town. The marching band, the lights, the crisp, cold air, moms and dads reliving the glory days in their own letter jackets from 20 years back. In a small town, thing is, all the adults graduated from that same high school. They all knew each other back in the day, and they know everybody's kids and grandkids now. They all remember sitting in those stands or riding the away-bus. When the town turned out to that field on Friday night, there was connection. Pride. History. Shoot, you didn't even need to go to the class reunion; just show up on Friday night.

I don't know that I can even properly explain what football means to a small town. Truth be told, I'm not sure I can fully understand it, seeing as how I wasn't "born and raised". I think that's one reason my parents were still seen as "the new folks", even years after we'd moved there, and sis and I had long left home. Not being raised that way, they didn't quite get the thing about Friday football. They didn't have any kids on the team or the cheer squad or in the band, so why would they go freeze their butts off in the stands? Didn't they go to all my concerts and watch me sing? Daddy could watch the Bengals on Monday night from the comfort of his own chair. Real football. They thought it was just a high school thing.

But it wasn't.


So, back to Luis Ramirez and the young men who killed him. As I read different articles and the comments to go with them, all of those memories came rushing back. Folks in Shenandoah are not only reeling from a brutal murder in their town, they've also been blindsided with the fact that it wasn't a bunch of thugs who did this.  Hell, it wasn't even the white trash who live in that sorry shack out yonder on Route 24 past Pine Ridge Road, no, these were football players. The good boys. The quarterback even, who's off to college come fall.

Seriously people, this is a big fucking deal in a small town.

So it didn't surprise me that the charges were so long in coming. It didn't surprise me to read that the beating was not recorded in that night's police log. Yes, I'm serious. "Standard practice", according to police. It didn't surprise me that "despite the witness statements, Borough Manager Joseph Palubinsky said he doesn't believe Ramirez's ethnicity was what prompted the fight," or that the police chief doesn't think it has anything do with racism either. (AP)

I have reason to know the kids who were involved, the families who were involved, and I've never known them to harbor this type of feeling.
~Borough Manager Joseph Palubinsky
From what we understand right now, it wasn't racially motivated. This looks like a street fight that went wrong."
~Police Chief Matthew Nestor
I think any time there's a fight, and any time you have one ethnic group fighting another, there's going to be racial slurs. I've seen that since I was a kid on a playground 20 years ago, but they never called it ethnic intimidation until very recently.
~Roger Laguna, Walsh's lawyer

All quotes from the Associated Press
A street fight that went wrong? Really? Boys will boys. I wonder, Mr. Laguna, if school-yard scuffles would have been called "ethnic intimidation" in your day had someone died on the playground?

Damn. I don't know about you, but I'm not feeling real confident about justice being served here, people.

Neither did it surprise me to read the horrible, hateful comments following the local articles, though in fairness, they were balanced by plenty of folks who were horrified by the blatant racism and cruelty, shocked at the hate that's crawled out into the light for everyone to see.

That's another thing about life in a small town. Things can seem fine on the surface, especially if you're white. Underneath though, it's very, very carefully balanced. As long as everyone acts right, life goes along just fine. Folks are friendly. And if you're making big yards for the football team, it doesn't much matter what color you are. Whoo-eee, that boy sure can run, cain't he? Only color anyone sees when you're driving down the field with that ball tucked under your arm, is the red and white of that uniform.

Until you start dating Judge Hapner's niece. Then it matters a whole lot. Folks see color real quick then.

I bet a lot of people in Shenandoah truly do not understand how this possibly could've happened in their community. They're good-hearted, well-intentioned folks who have never had to see things any other way because life has always gone along according to their way, and they don't even know it. I can well imagine how this has torn through this little town.

I also know there are plenty of people there who know exactly why this happened. People of color who have to be hyper-aware of their white neighbors' approval and comfort level every day of their lives. You can bet they're under no illusions. But there are also people who left comments like these in the local paper's accounts of the story:

TNT: Nothing he did in the U S was legal! Now my taxes are going to investigate his death and prosecute his assailants > Parasitic even in death!

Mary: Illegals...the name says it all ...goodbye and good riddance!! Those kids did us a favor, too bad they will have to face unpleasant consequences

Deer Hunter: Follow the leads of the good Sherrif and Hazleton's honorabe American leader. Nobody wants these illegals in town. Nobody! ... They have no rights. They are in your town and are bleeding it dry. Shenandoah residents should legally carry cocealed weapons to protect themselves, their property and their young women.

Tina: If these children were such cold blooded murderers they would have killed him there he died later on, yes because of the injuried these kids inficted on him, but they did not intend to murder him, it was an accident.

ddd: These boys are not cold blooded killers it was just an unfortunate mistake. Yes they must pay for their actions but if you knew them and their parents you would not be making such harsh statements against them.

John: Every city in America has a bad section. It usually has a high amount of minorites. When minorites move into a predominately white, safe and quiet town like Shenandoah, people are only assuming the worst because their reputation speaks for themselves.

Dakota: heres my 2 cents the big question ...Does his being illegal mean he deserved to be beaten to death.... YES!!! HAHAHAHAHAAH!!!!
~Comments from articles in the Pottsville Republican & Herald

You get the idea. Tip of the iceberg. Many seemed to regard the death as secondary, with Luis's immigration status firmly establishing itself as the real topic of discussion. In a nutshell: if he weren't here illegally, they wouldn't have killed him.

Again, other commenters did talk about how much more difficult the immigration process is now and how it's not really possible to "do it like our grandparents did" any more. Some local commenters even brought up globalization and US corporate colonization as the real issue behind modern immigration. These commenters condemned the beating and the boys responsible; they called it out as racism and were candid about the ongoing racial tension in their town. I was somewhat relieved to see a number of comments in this vein.

In the end though, it comes down to the fact that people were justifying murder of a human being because they disapproved of him being in the US. A man was killed by some angry racist teenagers with Town Hero complexes, and the biggest discussion point was the dead man's immigration status.

There's something very very wrong with that.