Ever been the victim of a hate crime? I have.
It was late summer. I can’t recall what year—I think around 1987—but I remember the rest. After hanging out with a dozen or so friends near the beach at La Jolla Shores, playing guitars and singing Beatles songs, we headed back to our cars.
I was ahead of the group by maybe 50 yards. Next to my car was a lowered Cadillac with tinted windows. Three guys, teenagers like me, two Latino and one African-American, stood outside the car, smoking cigarettes. Dressed in awkward, formal suits, they seemed agitated and a little loaded. And there were girls inside the car. They must’ve just come from a school prom and this is where they’d wound up.
As I approached and started to open my car door, one of the guys said, “What’s up?”
I said, “Hey.”
One of the others said, “Where you from?”
I answered, “Here. San Diego. Chicago, originally.”
“Eastside’s the best,” he insisted.
“You mean the east side of Chicago or San Diego?” It hadn’t occurred to me that his line of questioning was assault foreplay.
The one who’d first talked to me said, “Say the east side is the best.”
They’d circled in close, and even though I said what they said I should say: Bam! I took a blow to my head. I turned quick and tried to pull open my car door, but I was punched and kicked to the ground and some epithets about my skin color, which was different from theirs, were hurled down at me for good measure. I kept my face covered and pleaded, “Why are you doing this?” I wondered if their girlfriends were impressed.
My chicken-shit friends had run away and hidden. It was probably for the best. The quietest of the three bullies had a gun. One of his two friends suggested he show it to me. But the armed one said, “I just got out of trouble, man.” Meanwhile, the third one was whipping me with a thin piece of metal about as long as a fishing pole. It must’ve been some side-stripping from a car that he’d found in the street. It put some distance between them and me, so I reached up and swung my car door open and jumped in and locked it, got my key in the ignition, gunned the engine and backed out without looking. I circled up to Prospect Street and then back down to the beach.
The Cadillac was gone, and a few of my friends had emerged from their hiding places to see if I was OK. Most had split already. A few of us drove back up to Prospect to a pay phone and called the police. While we were on the phone, my new friends in their Cadillac cruised by but didn’t stop. About 15 minutes later, we were back at the location where I’d been beaten up.
The patrol car arrived and two officers stepped out and took a look at us teenage musicians with our weird clothes and knew all they needed to know.
“What are you doing here?” one asked.
“We were playing guitars under that big tree down by the beach. I was walking back when these three guys jumped me and beat me up for no reason,” I said.
“What do you expect us to do about it?” the cop asked, with a heaping dose of incredulity and sarcasm. I wasn’t expecting that.
My friend chimed in, “They’re still around here. We saw them drive by.”
The officer asked me, “If we catch them are you going to identify them and press charges?”
I don’t know why, but I hesitated.
Before I could formulate an answer to this unexpected question, he said this:
“Why don’t you leave La Jolla and never come back.”
It wasn’t an illusion-shattering sentiment. I’d been a punk rocker since 1978. I’d had my faith in cops shattered long before that night. But I never forgot it. We did what he said and left. And after that night, I never returned to La Jolla again, except for a few thousand times to eat dinner, hear music, work at my family’s business, get three degrees from UCSD, surf Scripps pier, attend plays at La Jolla Playhouse and art shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, check out the house where Raymond Chandler lived and wrote during the 1950s and just generally wreak fucking havoc.
Back in those days, California was ahead of the curve on hate-crime laws. The assault on me that night would’ve counted as one, and had the juveniles who’d attacked me been arrested and indicted, they might’ve faced enhanced penalties.
As much as we like to think of California as more enlightened than many of our still highly segregated red states, and San Diego as its “finest city,” hate happens here. Beyond the time it happened to me, I’ve seen it more times than I could fit on this page. Just a couple months ago, I witnessed two white skinheads beat up a Latino man on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, before driving off in their truck shouting “white power.” I let the victim’s friend use my bicycle to chase after them for the license-plate number.
Hate-crime laws were invented in Germany after WWII to protect folks like the few of my relatives who survived that unfathomable genocide, and I sure don’t want people to hate me for being Jewish, but as an American raised to believe in erring on the side of civil liberty, I also want to defend their right to do so.
In other words, I’m ambivalent about hate-crime laws. How about you?