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Sue the bigots: a civil remedy for victims of hate crimes

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Theresa Dixon still can't believe the case ended as it did.

Almost a year ago, the front door of her south-suburban Lynwood home was kicked down by a mob of white teenagers coming from a party down the street. The mob chased Dixon's son and daughter into an upstairs bedroom where their 82-year-old grandmother was resting, smashed furniture, kicked holes in the walls, and bellowed, "You're gonna die, nigger."

By the time they left, the house had suffered 2,500 dollars' worth of damage. "What happened that particular night was the most reprehensible thing that has come before this court in a long time," a sentencing judge later proclaimed. "By the grace of God, no one was hurt, no one was killed."

But as of yet, only three of the invaders have been charged, and none has served any jail time.

"It's unbelievable that this kind of race crime could happen in 1990," says Dixon. "They invaded my house, damaged my property, and scared the hell out of my family, including my mother. What's worse is that they got off so lightly. I wasn't asking for the death penalty; I just wanted the system to show its disapproval by enforcing a harsh penalty."

She took her all-too-familiar lament to the Project to Combat Violence, a creation of the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a not-for-profit legal clinic.

The project's purpose is to take advantage of a state law that allows victims of racially motivated crimes to file civil suits seeking monetary damages. In the last two years, the committee has filed five such cases; one case last year resulted in a $475,000 jury verdict for a black truck driver who was attacked in Bridgeport.

"Sometimes these cases don't get the attention they deserve from police, prosecutors, or the news media," says Elizabeth Shuman-Moore, a staff attorney for the committee. "I know it's a cliche, but we want to use the civil cases to send a message and show that violent hate crime will not be tolerated or lightly dismissed."

The committee's efforts come at a time when what experts call hate or bias crimes are apparently on the rise. The Chicago Commission on Human Relations reported 185 bias crimes in 1989; the commission's 1990 report is due in another month or so.

According to state law, "a person commits hate crime when, by reason of the race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals, he commits assault, battery, aggravated assault, misdemeanor theft, criminal trespass to residence, misdemeanor criminal damage to property, criminal trespass to vehicle, criminal trespass to real property or mob action."

Unfortunately, many incidents go unreported or unpunished. In December, for instance, a swastika and the slogan "white power" were scrawled on the side of a factory building near the intersection of Ravenswood and Berteau avenues in the 47th Ward, on the north side. The ugly message has remained on the wall for more than a month, as though local residents and politicians tacitly endorse it.

Most incidents of bias crime involve whites against blacks, according to the commission. The attacks often begin when a neighborhood integrates or when a black stranger wanders through an all-white neighborhood. The black trucker who won his lawsuit last year was attacked when his tow truck broke down near 31st and Wallace streets.

"Another client of ours, a black man named Allexis Dodds, accidentally got off a bus in Cicero," says Shuman-Moore. "He was looking for a bus to take him back to the city when he ran into a mob of white thugs who broke a baseball bat over his head."

As the Dodds case shows, bias crimes are by no means limited to the city. According to an article in the Arlington Heights Daily Herald by Anne Burris Gasior, one East Indian family were driven from their home in Elk Grove Village after five years of vandalism, threats, and taunts.

In the northwest suburbs, a synagogue and Jewish community centers have been defaced, and Hispanics and blacks have been attacked, Burris Gasior reported. At one point in the summer of 1989, three men dressed in camouflage hunting clothes began firing high-powered BB rifles at sunbathers in a section of a suburban forest preserve where gays allegedly gather.

Most experts contend that bias crimes increase during economically hard times and are expressions of widely felt resentments and hostilities that most people repress.

According to a 1990 study reported in the New York Times,"the large majority [of bias crimes] are committed by people in groups of four or more. And the more people in the group, the more vicious the crime." The story argues that these crimes "reflect the primal emotions aroused by love of one's own group; these deep feelings of group identity are particularly vivid in times of economic and political uncertainty and among people who suffered emotional neglect as children."

Experts say perpetrators of bias crimes rarely act alone; instead they act in a group to shield themselves from the individual guilt or responsibility that might otherwise come from their actions. "Being in a crowd where hostile feelings toward a group are being expressed triggers a regression to a primitive level of mental activity," Steven Salmony, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, told the New York Times. "They fall prey to an emotional contagion where they see their own group as the source of all that is good, and those in an opposing group as equally bad. It intensifies their hatred toward those seen as outsiders."

Such emotional forces might have been at play in Lynwood last February 3 when Dixon's home was invaded. Police say the trouble began when a teenaged girl, distraught over a fight she had had at the party with her boyfriend, encountered Dixon's son in his driveway.

"The girl was crying and my son asked her what was wrong," says Dixon. "She said, 'Nothing.' My son asked her if she needed help. She said, 'No.' So my son went on his way."

Police say the girl returned to the party and told friends she had been attacked by a black man. At least 40 people from the party marched over to the Dixons'. The mob kicked open the steel-reinforced front doors, and about 20 people chased the terrified family into an upstairs bedroom.

"The mob kicked in the walls, broke our garage windows, ran up the stairs, and shouted racial abuse," says Dixon, who was not home at the time. "My son tried to call the police, but I don't know if he got through. Someone must have got through to the police because a squad car came. My son forced the mob to leave the house by pretending he had a gun."

In the aftermath, Cook County prosecutors charged three youths with misdemeanor offenses, contending that the Dixons had not wanted to pursue felony charges. (The owner of the house at which the party took place has been charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors; his case is pending.) What's more, the state statute against hate crimes was not enforced against any of the defendants.

"To me it does not fit the statute," Patrick Quinn, chief prosecutor in Cook County's south suburbs, told a reporter for the Southtown Economist. "They were not attacked because they were black. They were attacked because they believed [Dixon's son] had attacked this girl. This young lady had lied."

Dixon vehemently disagrees. "How could they say this isn't racial when they were yelling things like 'nigger die'? It's just inconceivable to me that Quinn could say these things."

Two of the youths pled guilty and received sentences of forced community service. A third took his case to court and was sentenced to one month in jail by Cook County circuit court judge Reginald Baker.

"Baker was the judge who said it was the most reprehensible crime he had seen," says Dixon. "I was in the courtroom when he said that."

But at another sentencing hearing a few weeks later, Baker voided the jail sentence, imposing instead an order of enforced community service. The judge argued that all defendants should be equally sentenced.

"Up until that last sentence hearing I had attended every hearing," says Dixon. "No one told me about that last hearing. When I got the news I was outraged. . . . I was asking for an appropriate sentence. I don't believe community service is that."

For her part, Shuman-Moore is reluctant to criticize the Lynwood police or Cook County state's attorney because their cooperation is needed in bringing charges against others who might have invaded the Dixon home.

"Supervisors at the state's attorney's office have now assured us that they are seeking to have other responsible parties charged," says Shuman-Moore. "We hope that all perpetrators are brought to justice."

In the past, that has not always been the case, which is why more victims are filing civil lawsuits. "The lawyers who argue these cases for us are usually experienced trial attorneys from prominent firms," says Shuman-Moore. "They handle the cases free of charge. I think they like these kinds of trials because usually it's so obviously a good-versus-evil type of thing."

Dixon still hasn't filed a civil case but says she plans to soon. "Since this happened, no one in Lynwood has called to ask if they could help us or to say they were sorry or to apologize in any way," she says. "What bothers me more than the broken doors and windows was the anger, hatred, and rage they represent. This crime was so mean. It shouldn't go unpunished."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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