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.
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.”