A shameful story from the Southwest: a mentally disabled Navajo man from Farmington, N.M., a predominantly white community of 45,000 near the Navajo Nation, was brutally assaulted by three friends who had just ended their shifts at a McDonald's restaurant. They reputedly branded a swastika on the man's arm using a heated coat hanger that they had fashioned into the shape of the Nazi symbol. They then proceeded to shave another swastika on the back of the 22-year-old victim's head, as well as scrawling racist and obscene messages and images on his body.
This ugly incident is significant because the three men, William Hatch, Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford, who have pleaded not guilty, have become the first in the nation to be charged under a new law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and could face ten years in the slammer if convicted. If the government proves kidnapping occurred, the charge could go up to life.
Despite a troubled legacy of poor Anglo-Navajo race relations in Farmington, an historic agreement between Farmington leaders and the Navajo Nation was signed earlier this month in which both sides pledged to work toward achieving racial harmony. If this new hate crimes law can do for unconscionable bullying and uncivilized ignorance what the RICO Act did for organized crime, it will be a great thing indeed.
Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts did sound a note of optimism. "There will always be people who just don't get it. They're not going to change their attitudes and at some point they'll carry out their beliefs in a way we all find real troubling. But what we do have now is a greater understanding of culture in our community, and I think that understanding runs both ways."