MIDWOOD--The truth is locked in the offender's heart

It was billed as a chance for South Asian immigrants to learn from a cop and prosecutor what hate crimes are and how to report them. But by the end of the meeting in Brooklyn's heavily Pakistani Midwood section, the lecturers were mired in legalisms, the organizers were squirming with confusion, and many in the audience seemed like they wanted to be anywhere but here, the place they thought they'd find help.

Racist taunts, violent assaults--these were hate crimes, right? But during the Q&A, Sgt. Michael Fanning of the NYPD and Kings County Assistant District Attorney Richard Farrell demurred that foul language and violence aren't necessarily covered by hate-crime statutes. No one was happy with that answer. But it was an honest one. When it comes to hate crimes, one quickly learns, laws have one way of interpreting conflicts. Immigrants freshly experiencing the complexities of race, ethnicity and turf in New York City live in an entirely different reality.

The hijabed housewives, the cabbies snacking on vegetable samosas, the civil rights activists--they had come here at the behest of the Council of Pakistan Organization, an immigrants' rights group on Coney Island Avenue, and started out full of good intentions. Everyone agreed that reports of attacks against Muslims and people who look Muslim have plummeted in New York since the first weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. Post-9/11 assaults, such as taxi drivers being dragged from their vehicles, are now outstripped by occasional epithets on the order of "terrorist," "towel head," "Osama."

For those who didn't already know, Farrell explained an important detail about hurtful words like these: "In this country we have the First Amendment," he said, as Council of Pakistan community organizer Meeka Bhattacharya, a recent graduate of Bard College, translated to Urdu. Accordingly, New York State's hate-crimes legislation deems bigoted language to be protected speech. "For example," continued Farrell, "it wouldn't be a crime for me to put a Nazi flag on my front lawn." Hateful words and symbols, Farrell explained, are only unlawful if they accompany a traditionally criminal act, like beating someone up or vandalizing a building with spray paint.

Some in the crowd looked perplexed. Others seemed disgruntled.

Impatience grew as Farrell warned that even when assaults and vandalism do occur, they're hate crimes only when authorities can show that the perpetrator deliberately chose his targets because of their links to, say, a particular race, nationality or religion. "The stupidest thing you can do is open your mouth," Farrell quipped. As an example, he described a Muslim who recently poured gasoline on a Brooklyn synagogue. In itself, that wouldn't be a hate crime. But after the man spent an hour at the police station fuming about how he despised Jews, it was easy to slap him with a hate-crime charge. On the other hand, Farrell waxed mystically, if a perpetrator stays silent, "we're never going to know" if he committed an ordinary crime or a hate crime, because "the truth is locked in the offender's heart."

The chairs were squeaking now as it dawned on the Pakistanis that all the hate-crime laws and training sessions in the world would not address another of their problems--one far more terrorizing than being called a terrorist.

A slender, somber young man with a half-healed gash on his head gave details in heavily accented English. "I was stabbed in February outside my home," said Jamil Chaudhry, a livery driver who immigrated five years ago and now lives in Ditmas Park. "He tried to rob me and he chased me. He tried to come through my back door. The next night he hid in the hedges at 3 a.m. When I came to my door he stabbed me five times in the head. Six months ago another perpetrator stabbed my brother. But the police report everything simply as robbery."

"Did the bad guys say anything about Pakistanis or Muslims?" asked Assistant D.A. Farrell. "No?" He tried to explain again about words and the absence of words. Without them, he said, a robber merely commits a crime of opportunity--even if the victim is a Muslim. Organizer Bhattacharya protested. "This has created a web of fear in the community! I can't tell my community these are not hate crimes!"

But she would have to tell them. And as other audience members added their two cents to the story of the robberies, Bhattacharya realized there was something else she'd need to discuss, because if she didn't, Chaudhry or someone else in the room would beat her to the punch. He was already venting now. "The person who stabbed me was black," Chaudhry told the audience. "The perpetrator who stabbed my brother was black. I talk to my people. We think blacks attacking us is hate crime."

"How can I talk about this?" Bhattacharya wondered after the meeting--more to herself than to anyone else. "How do I talk about hate-crime perpetrators of color, when I support the struggles of people of color?"


GREENPOINT--We got on our cell phones to call for more Polish guys

When the New York City Police Department first established a bias investigation unit a generation ago, no one knew how complicated the concept of hate crime would later become. According to conventional wisdom, Jews and their synagogues got attacked by non-Jews of all races and ethnicities. Crimes against gays were likewise ecumenical. But when it came to assaults on people of color, the bigots were presumed to be white. Labeling their transgressions with the special term "bias crime" would send a message that such behavior wouldn't be tolerated.

The white-on-black paradigm for hate crime was seared on New Yorkers' consciousness by brutal incidents like the one in Howard Beach in 1986. A group of black men who went into a pizzeria in that white neighborhood were chased by local teenage boys yelling racial epithets and wielding a bat. Desperately trying to escape, one of the black men, Michael Griffith, darted onto a busy Queens highway and was killed by a passing automobile. Two years later, Yusef Hawkins, a black teen from East New York, visited Bensonhurst, then a largely Italian-American area, to buy a car. There, he encountered a mob of youths who accused him of entering the neighborhood to date an Italian girl who liked to go out with blacks and Latinos. As Yusef knelt and pleaded for his life, one of the mob shot him dead.