IN THE NEWS: Attacks on Mexicans Leave Neighborhood in Turmoil

[SOURCE: The New York Times, AUTHOR: Kirk Semple] 7/30/10

Police officers patrolling by foot, car and helicopter have turned Port Richmond Avenue, a busy commercial strip on Staten Island, into something like an armed encampment. Reporters have descended en masse. Community leaders dash from crisis meeting to crisis meeting.

A spate of attacks in the past four months on Mexican immigrants has upended Port Richmond, a working-class neighborhood on the borough’s north shore that is more accustomed to being ignored.

But amid the show of force by the Police Department, which deployed teams of officers to the area this week in what it described as a temporary move to protect residents and defuse tensions, local leaders are taking a longer view.

“The question is, what happens when everybody pulls up the tents and leaves?” said the Rev. Terry Troia, an activist and Staten Island native who has been at the center of the hour-by-hour civic response to the unrest.

This is not the first time Latinos in Port Richmond have been victimized in bias attacks. Ms. Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, an interfaith organization that serves the poor of Staten Island, said the violence dates back to 2003. In one attack, a Mexican immigrant who worked as a cook at an IHOP restaurant was killed by three assailants in 2006, according to local activists and the Mexican Consulate in New York.

Some of those earlier episodes attracted news coverage, but then the neighborhood fell back into its usual fraught rhythms. Now its Mexican population, Ms. Troia said, is particularly concerned about what might happen next. “They’re worried that as soon as the police leave, they’re going to be set upon,” she said.

The Rev. Dr. Tony Baker, pastor of St. Philip’s Baptist Church in the neighborhood’s heart, said the attacks pointed to deep-seated problems. “I think we’ve gone to sleep on the conditions we find ourselves in,” he said. “And we woke up in the midst of a racial war.”

The police said Friday that nine men — all of them Mexican immigrants — had been attacked since early April, all by young black men. Six suspects have been arrested in connection with three of the beatings, but a grand jury turned down prosecutors’ requests to indict them on hate-crime charges. Two men have pleaded guilty to robbery in two of the cases; the third case is pending.

The most recent attack was on July 23. Fidel González, a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant walking home after playing soccer in a park, was set upon by several men yelling anti-Mexican epithets, the police said. The men punched Mr. González and hit him with a scooter, breaking his jaw and cutting open his head, then stole his backpack, which contained an iPod and two cellphones, the police said.

On Tuesday night, after appeals by the consulate and local leaders, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly announced he was sending an emergency contingent to Port Richmond, including about 130 additional officers, a 15-member hate crimes investigative team, horse patrols, helicopter flyovers and mobile observation towers at key intersections.

Mexico’s consul general, Rúben Beltrán, sent a representative on Monday to set up a neighborhood office and directly assist the Mexican population. The representative drives around in a car emblazoned with the phone number for a 24-hour, toll-free hot line and a message in Spanish that begins, “Mexican, know your rights.”

Since the representative arrived, several more Mexicans have told consulate officials that they, too, were victims of attacks but had been too fearful of deportation or retribution to come forward sooner, consulate officials said.

“There are all kinds of beatings that aren’t recorded,” Ms. Troia said. “People talk casually about this: ‘Oh, I got a dislocated shoulder’; ‘I lost my eye.’ ”

Civic leaders and police officials say they are exploring many possible reasons for the violence: anti-immigrant fervor, racism, gangs, the boredom of idle youth during the summer, joblessness, overcrowding and even the notion that attacking Latinos acquired a cachet in the neighborhood this year, prompting copycat assaults. But in the past few days, all conversations about motive have eventually turned to a dynamic familiar to many neighborhoods in New York: demographic change.

In the mid-20th century, Port Richmond was heavily populated with Eastern European Jews and Irish immigrants, who owned many of the businesses along Port Richmond Avenue. But after the Staten Island Mall opened in 1973, stores closed, property values fell and many longtime residents moved away.

Blacks became the dominant population in the 1980s and ’90s, but the number of Latinos also grew. After 9/11 and the imposition of tougher immigration and travel rules that impeded the flow of migrant laborers around the country and across borders, the Mexican population planted deeper roots in Port Richmond and grew quickly.

In 1990, according to census statistics, 950 people of Mexican descent lived in the 120th Police Precinct, which includes Port Richmond. By 2008, that number had grown to 8,400. Before 9/11, there were only three Mexican-owned businesses in Port Richmond, Ms. Troia said; now there are more than 50.

The student body of Public School 20, once mostly black, is now nearly all Latino and predominantly Mexican.

That growth among Mexicans has unsettled members of some other minority groups, including Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and especially blacks, many residents say. Black religious leaders and community activists say they often hear constituents complain that Mexicans and other Latinos have taken jobs that should have been theirs. “That’s a conversation that’s been going on,” Dr. Baker said. But, he added, some who have complained “are not going out to get jobs.”

Rogelio Vasquez, 48, the victim in one case that has been resolved, said he feared that he might be attacked again for cooperating with the authorities. Still, he said he harbored no ill will toward his assailants; the attacks, he said, were “the errors of young people.”

Port Richmond’s leaders are searching for solutions. Some want to address the lack of community resources, including jobs, housing and recreation. Others are looking for ways to bridge racial, cultural and even generational divides through initiatives like a gathering of mothers from different ethnic groups, or a midnight basketball league.

“What it calls for is work,” Dr. Baker said. “The Latino community, the African-American community, the Caucasian community, coming together and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”


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