Luis Ramirez and American Racism

On Friday, May 1, while thousands of people in the U.S. were marching for immigrants’ rights, an “all-white” jury in Pennsylvania acquitted two “white” teens of killing a Mexican immigrant.

Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarsky, 17—along with Colin Walsh, 18, who did not stand trial but pleaded guilty to federal charges—beat up Luis Ramirez on July 12, 2008 in Shenandoah, PA.  They left him with his head so severely beaten that his brains were slowly leaking from his skull.  On July 14, Ramirez, who was an undocumented immigrant, died from his injuries.


There were accusations of racial epithets being used and of the crime being motivated by Ramirez’ ethnicity and race. One witness testified another youth who accompanied the accused teens shouted “This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.”  Others accused Ramirez of being violent and of instigating the conflict himself.

Now a jury found Piekarsky not guilty of third-degree murder; not guilty of voluntary manslaughter; and not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. They found Donchak not guilty of aggravated assault and not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. They found both guilty of assault. Without criminal records both are not likely to serve any time in prison.

For some coverage of the verdict, see the local Morning Call and CNN.

Some people are asking if the verdict is racist.  They want to know if these two boys were acquitted because of their race, or because of the race of the man they killed.  They wonder if immigration figures into it.

They are asking the wrong questions.

Shenandoah, the accused, the jury, the judge, the prosecutor, the witnesses, the police, the reporters, the people who sat and heard testimony, me, and you, we all have somethings in common.  We live in a society with a long tradition of nurturing a belief in the superiority of one “race” (the so-called “white”) over all others.  We live in a society with a long tradition of elaborating on the particular inferiority of each “other race.”  We live in a society with a long tradition of thinking of the nonwhite and the nonwhite immigrant and threats, as not human, and as inherently criminal.

These are not the only traditions in our society.  They are not equally encountered and inherited by each of us.  They do not absolve us of independent thought, or of the ability to interrogate and dismantle them.

But they are there.  Much more than  ideas, prejudices, and thoughts, they are the rationales our daily interactions with each other, and for our own interactions with systems of power.  They have been a shorthand for ordering our lives, for defining “we” and “they.”  They have played a role in helping you define yourself, who you are and who you are not.

In her book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Daniel Tatum equates this to smog. We may not have created it, but we are born into a world polluted by it. Whether or not we like it, all of us—both people of color and “whites”—breathe it in.

Likewise, it is each of our responsibilities to do something about it.

LatinoLikeMe featured a few posts on the murder and subsequent flurry of national media attention. Even without doing much more than re-posting a story from another news source, they became heavily trafficked posts for this blog. They also inspired a host of comments. Read the ones below this post, for an example of the way certain people were moved.

You see, here’s the thing: none of the so-called “facts” here matter. No matter what “side” you are on, there should be no legal protection for beating a man until his brains seep out of his head. Irregardless of whose testimony you believe, we are all products of a reality which sympathizes “whites,” criminalizes Latinos, and dehumanizes immigrants.

I didn’t know Luis Ramirez. He might have been an asshole, he might have been a saint. In a few years, maybe more, most people not directly affected by this case will have forgotten about him, if they ever knew who he was to begin with. But that’s not really the point.

None of us should ever forget what these events tell us about ourselves, as individuals and as a society. As I wrote last summer:

“In the end, stories like this tell us far more about ourselves than about the victims or perpetrators–whether in how we make sense of it, identify with it, or seek to incorporate its balance into our lives.”


6 thoughts on “Luis Ramirez and American Racism

  1. Pingback: The Death of Luis Ramirez and Shenandoah, PA « LATINO LIKE ME

  2. Pingback: Luis Ramirez is Dead « LATINO LIKE ME

  3. I live near Shenandoah, I moved here 7 years ago from Ca. It really is that bad here, I almost always hear racist remarks being made whenever I’m in town. Even teachers and nurses whom I’ve met have made comments against black and hispanics. We need some serious rallies and protest here. We need a million multi-ethnic march in Shenandoah. I am white with many hispanic relatives.

  4. I believe we need to be careful how broadly we paint this case as a prime example of racism in America. Juries do not act rational.

    Is there Racism? Of course, our prejudices permeate all aspects of our life and how we see and interact with other people. But, this case is difficult for a prosecutor to prove because it seems both parties at some level instigated the fight. I personally believe what these criminals did was murder. However, personal beliefs asides, criminals have inherent rights. The foundation of these rights is that a prosecutor has to prove a case beyond a reason doubt. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves a person with an abiding conviction that the charge is true.

    Even though I have not heard the facts of the case, (and please note the media usually has the facts of criminal cases wrong) I can assume the defense argued the 18 and 19 year-old “boys,” were in fear for their life and they acted in self-defense. One article specifically addressed this issue. According to the article the Defendants at one point tried to walk away from the fight. A self-defense case is very hard to prove to a jury because most people in the United States believe that people have a right to defend themselves.

    Moreover, the prosecutor’s case was hard to prove because the victim could not testify and the witnesses that did testify were inconsistent. According to the prosecutor’s media statement, the witnesses that did testify were not very credible because they provided inconsistent statements. This case was hard to prove.

    Now with that said, did racism play a part in this verdict? Most likely yes. Did the fact the victim was not legally in the United States play some role? Possibly. Would a jury from California find a different verdict? Maybe. But to say this case specifically addresses the issue of migrant racism, I don’t know if that is completely correct. The Defendants were racist. They acted out of hatred. But the fact the jury acquitted these defendants does not mean they themselves acted with a racist intent.

    Fortunately, we can change the “smog” of racism. I heard a story awhile back about a Hispanic prosecutor. In this case, the suspect was caught with a bottle full of marijuana and some sort of liquid. (not a bong) The suspect was a migrant worker out San Joaquin County. The prosecutor that initially charged the case thought the migrant worker was harboring the marijuana to personally use as an intoxicant. The case went to arraignment. The young Hispanic prosecutor read the police report and knew that the migrant worker was not using the bottle as a narcotic, but rather, as a topical muscle relieving solution, ie Bengay. This young prosecutor dismissed the case against the migrant worker.

    Much like this story, in order to begin the process of educating “our society” we need to become active in “our society.” Its to easy to say “them,” “they,” “the man,” “the establishment,” and wash our hands of our own responsibility to improve our society. If we are mad about how this case ended, we need to take an active role. We need to become judges, prosecutors, police officers, senators, and politician.

    Today we should cry because Mr. Luis Ramirez Zavala lost his life and these murders escaped punishement. But tomorrow what are “we” going to do to stop this from happening again?

  5. There is a way of Deceiving People, that is hiding the REAL IMPORTANT NEWS and filling the time with Racist Garbage and with Hate Rants against Minorities.

    Fox News pratices that Deception and Swindles us every time that we turn on the TV in this station.

    Injustice Served – The Murder of Luis Ramirez – CNN’s Anderson Cooper is a gentleman. He is telling the story and not hiding the facts, that is what Fox News ( the Network of Racism and Intolerance ) does.

    Jeffrey Toobin, CNN Senior Legal Analyst
    John Amaya, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund
    With Anderson Cooper 360
    The Heinous Crime – Does Justice exist in this World ??

    The Brutal Beating and Kicking in the head against Luis Ramirez that produced his death on July of 2008. By a Gang of Football Players.

    These Coward Terrorists are criminal murderers and should not be free.

    May 05, 2009

    CNN analyst calls for federal hate crimes investigation
    By David Edwards

    Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak were acquitted of various state charges resulting from the beating and murder of Luis Ramirez. CNN legal analyst Jeffery Toobin is calling for a federal hate crimes investigation. The facts and circumstances of this case certainly call for at least a federal investigation because it is possible when a group of individuals are acquitted on state charges, that federal bias charges can be brought, explained Toobin.

    This video is from CNNs Anderson Cooper 360, broadcast May 4, 2009.

    I have been following the story with many videos, excerpts from newspaper articles and pointing to all the sources.

    Vicente Duque

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s