Staten Island may feel like New York City’s forgotten borough at times. But in recent months, it's been catapulted to the forefront of headlines—and not in the way Islanders would have wanted.
Since April of this year, at least 11 alleged bias attacks have taken place in Staten Island, mostly against male Mexican immigrants and many in the Port Richmond area, home to a fast-growing Mexican community.
Some of the violent attacks have included theft, assault and racial epithets. Most of the perpetrators have been described as black.
Even usually jaded New Yorkers have been struck by the severity of the attacks. Alejandro Galindo was left with a fractured eye socket and brain trauma; Rudolfo Olmedo, a cracked skull; and a 40-year-old man had his jaw broken in July when a group of thugs swung a scooter at him.
So far, police investigations have resulted in arrests in several of the cases. No hate crimes prosecutions have been filed by the District Attorney’s office of Staten Island. The investigations have been hindered in some instances by the victims losing consciousness during the beatings and not remembering details.
But what is beyond doubt is that Mexican immigrants of mestizo or indigenous background are being specifically targeted.
The attacks in Staten Island are part of a disturbing trend. Hate attacks against Latinos have been on the rise for years. From Shenandoah, Pa. to Bushwick, Brooklyn, to Suffolk County, Long Island, Latino immigrants have been hunted, beaten and murdered. Troublesome questions about law enforcement in Shenandoah and Suffolk have even provoked federal probes.
The surge in attacks in Staten Island drew a firm response from community and elected leaders and the New York City police department. And while hate crimes must be investigated and prosecuted, that is a reactive strategy that deals with a brutal attack after it has happened. A preventive approach looks at factors that can give rise to this type of violence.
The first step in prevention is for community leaders to recognize and stress that violence is violence, regardless of the immigration status or national origin of the victim.
This may sound like a no-brainer. But in my years of monitoring anti-immigrant violence, I never cease to be shocked by some of the comments that appear online. Take a look at what people post online after an article about a hate attack and I guarantee that there will be numerous comments that blame the victim. They usually sound like this: “Not to say that I agree with violence, but if he had not been here illegally…”
How some people so easily offer violence a pass is frightening. But this justification is not entirely surprising. The anti-immigrant lobby and right-wing media have made every effort to paint undocumented immigrants as shadowy, criminal figures ready to pull the rug from under the United States. That has helped to dehumanize Latino immigrants in general and create a degree of acceptance for violence against them.
In the case of Staten Island’s Port Richmond area, the angry tenor of the immigration debate, ignorance about emerging immigrant communities, and a neglected population have laid the groundwork for the potential of violence. For example, leaders point to the lack of community centers for young people, some of whom are neither in school nor working, and instead wind up getting into trouble.
If local activists have identified this as a fundamental problem, then we need an effective strategy involving not only the deployment of more officers and patrols, but also outreach and services for young people.
Beneath this hateful spate of bias incidents in Staten Island, there is also a broader and more hopeful story. Mexican and African American families break bread together. Catholic Mexican families visit a Baptist Church, where they are exposed to a different style of worship and embraced. Day laborers learn about how Italian workers were discriminated against in the 20th century. As Port Richmond activist Gonzalo Mercado put it, “The media covers the hate crimes but they don’t cover these exchanges.”
The brutality of the attacks should never be sugarcoated. But the work to heal and build a community should ring just as loudly.
Erica González is the Opinion Page Editor for El Diario/La Prensa, the largest Spanish-language daily in New York and the oldest in the United States.