Commentary

On Nov. 8, 2008, Marcelo Lucero, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador working at a dry cleaning store, was attacked by seven teenagers from the local high school in Patchogue, Long Island, and stabbed to death. His attack, according to testimony, was part of a weekend “sport” in which these teenagers routinely targeted and attacked brown-skinned people.

The story became national news because the hate crime murder involved suburban teenagers, but also because of the timing. Nov. 8, 2008 was just four days after the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, a heady time when many wondered if we had entered a “post-racial America.”

I presided over the funeral of Mr. Lucero at the Congregational Church of Patchogue amid assertions by Latino advocates that this was but one of many hate crime attacks that were tolerated or covered-up by the then County Executive and the Suffolk County Police Department. Both reported, by official count, only one hate crime in the entire prior year.

Shortly after the funeral of Lucero, I declared my church a “safe sanctuary” and extended an offer to all persons who believed themselves to be victims of a hate crime, but were afraid, for various reasons, to report it to authorities. We interviewed more than 30 people who offered heart-wrenching stories of civil and human rights violations. Our assertions of the under-reporting of hate crimes were confirmed several months later by a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center which stated: "The murder of Marcelo Lucero was by no means an isolated hate crime but rather part of a wider pattern of violent attacks against Latinos in Suffolk County."

The interviews were tape recorded — at my request and written permission from those offering testimony — by a reporter for the Connecticut-based NPR affiliate. For confidentiality purposes, the testimonies of those interviewed were identified by number, not name. I maintained possession of the portable hard drive that was shortly thereafter subpoenaed by a grand jury. Shortly after that, the Department of Justice opened a federal investigation of the Suffolk County Police Department that resulted in several demands for change.

In the immediate aftermath of the hate crime murder and subsequent discovery of deeply-rooted causes and symptoms, I believe the community failed to act decisively. In the first 90 days, no model for hate crime avoidance and response emerged that could be replicated by other communities, based upon what we had experienced and learned. Instead, there was an understandable attempt to rush the healing process, but it led to missed opportunities to address underlying issues.

That failure to act allowed bandages to be placed over still-infected wounds and set us up for possible relapses into acts of hatred and fear. Indeed, years after Patchogue came Charlottesville and far too many other similar situations with which we are painfully familiar. Despite the hard work of many individuals and institutions, some things seem to be getting worse since the election of Donald Trump. As a candidate, Trump visited Patchogue and spoke within sight of the place where Marcelo was stabbed. Trump did not talk about Marcelo or denounce racist violence, but instead focused his energy on condemning immigrants.

One indicator that things are getting worse is that despite 10 years of gaining their trust, Latinos have all but disappeared from our church’s free mobile shower unit, barbershop, soup kitchen, clothes pantry, and free flu shots. Some people have reported to me that, documented or not, once they leave the church and cross the street, they fear they will be followed, harassed or detained by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents. As they did 10 years ago, many confide in me that they will not report such things as beatings, rape, or burglaries against themselves or their family for fear of what government officials may do to them. They fear that more people will be emboldened in their hatred today.

Simmering resentment seldom goes away by its own accord. It lives on in forms such as equating murderous MS13 gang members with all Latino immigrants. Unfortunately, people who preach inclusion and immigrant rights are labelled as MS13 sympathizers. Even many clergy are afraid to speak. Civility is, I have no doubt, being eroded by an increased tolerance of public expressions of hatred.

Ten years after Marcelo’s killing, we still have a lot of work to do. Let us hold hope for the future. But let us not dare to ignore the problem of hate — lest it rears its ugly head again.

Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter is the author of three books on forgiveness, pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue, and writer for publications such as Patheos, Still Speaking Daily Devotionals, and has been heard often on NPR and numerous television and cable networks.

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