In Spike Lee's seminal work, Do the Right Thing, the character of Radio Raheem (played brilliantly by Bill Nunn) is a street prophet who communicates through music and action as opposed to words. Rocking a high-top fade, an African medallion, and carrying a boom box, Raheem patrols his neighborhood, sometimes offering pearls of wisdom. One of these pearls came in the form of brass knuckles that he wears on each hand; one set spells out love and the other set spells out hate. In one of his few statements in the film, Raheem explains that love and hate are at war with each other, and just when it seems that hate is making a comeback and taking over, love knocks it out. But these days our culture is in need of Radio Raheem's rhetoric because hate seems to be in abundance, and love does not appear to be prevailing.
To say that I was appalled to learn of the abduction, rape and torture of Megan Williams, a 20-year-old woman in Logan County, W.Va., is an understatement. Williams was abducted by six people -- four men and two women -- held hostage, repeatedly stabbed and raped, made to eat dog and rat feces and drink from a toilet bowl while being called racist and sexist epithets like "nigger," "bitch," and the infamous "c" word. Authorities are still not sure of how long Williams was missing, but they think that it was more than a week.
Williams is African-American and her captors are white, but -- shockingly -- there appears to be an unwillingness to prosecute the offenders under federal hate crime laws. In this case, U.S. Attorney Charles Miller announced that his office would not seek federal charges in the alleged rape and torture of Williams, even though the Logan County Prosecutor Brian Abraham stated that, "There is no doubt, from what I've seen, that race was a contributing factor."
When hate crimes are not prosecuted, however, other problems emerge ... as is the case with the Jena 6 in Louisiana.
If the school officials and prosecutors had come together and let it be known that there is no tolerance for hate crimes when the young white men hung three nooses over a "whites only" tree on the school property, the resulting chaos may not have ensued.
The prosecutor, who is also on the school board, overturned the initial expulsion of the white students and did not pursue charges against them for the hate crime. Not only should they have been expelled from the school system, the case should have been pursued as a hate crime to send a clear message that hate crimes will not be tolerated. Instead, the incident was not addressed adequately, allowing hate to fester and grow, resulting in the incarceration and overzealous prosecution of six black high school students. (A tennis shoe as a deadly weapon?)
The "underzealous" prosecution of the initial hate crime led to the resulting tragic events. Because the adults in the situation (school principal, school board, parents, police, prosecutors) failed as adults, these kids (black and white) took matters into their own hands with disastrous results. Now these young men are being railroaded by the very system that failed to protect them and their rights, while the hate mongers get away with a symbolic murder.
In the midst of all this tragedy, there are some signs of hope. On Sept. 10, 2007, a noose was hung on a tree near the black cultural studies center at the University of Maryland. But, unlike officials in Jena, university officials and police authorities are treating this incident as a crime. They have opened a formal investigation and plan to prosecute those that are responsible for the crime. Ironically, it's thought that this crime is predicated on the growing national attention on the Jena 6 case. Mychal Bell, the first member of the Jena 6 who was tried and convicted was set to be sentenced on Sept. 20. But on Sept. 14, a state appeals court vacated his felony conviction, ruling that he had been tried improperly as an adult. Protesters, however, still plan to march on Jena this Thursday.
Perhaps we can take a cue from other more self-critical countries. Germany is embarrassed by its legacy of hate, such that they have some of the toughest hate crime laws in the world. Does that mean that they have no hate crimes? No. But it does mean that their citizens and visitors know that hate crime will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
In this climate of hate, it is important to fight back with love. When we do not, our culture dies, like the character of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. One of the ways that we can do this is by protecting the rights of all of our citizens, regardless of race, class, gender, religion or sexuality. Show some love on Sept. 20 for yourselves by turning away from frivolous distractions and turning towards your family, friends and neighbors -- and pledge to end hate in our culture and society.