MOBILE, Ala. -- Last Saturday night at 8:20 p.m., when the white Matthew Owens was beaten into critical condition by a mob of dozens of black neighbors, Al Sharpton and the New Black Panthers got what they wanted: a white victim, any white victim, in payback for the killing of Trayvon Martin. May God have mercy on their miserable souls -- because the rest of us should shun them mercilessly from all decent society.
Delmar Drive is one of those long, long blocks, the equivalent of probably four long city blocks without a single cross street, which sometimes gets wedged into odd nooks of American cities. At its entrance off of Pleasant Valley Road, Delmar seems to feature mostly black residents in decently maintained houses. From about three-fourths of the way down the street and on to the dead end, most residents, of similar houses, appear to be white -- but without an absolute segregation on either end of the street. One sees no reason why race should necessarily be an issue there.
Nonetheless, a white man in a business suit at dusk in a racially tense neighborhood under a national spotlight is wise not to ask too many questions of angry black people on the street. Better to return in broad daylight. But the composite picture from white witnesses about what happened last Saturday night leaves almost no doubt that racial animus played the major role in the vicious beating. Their account, perhaps one-sided but told quietly and with obvious sincerity, follows.
Yes, Mr. Owens apparently had run-ins with black neighbors before. There was another incident where he was reportedly hit in the head (once) with a stick. This beating wasn't just about basketball in the street. Neighbors do describe children or teenagers playing ball and refusing, rather belligerently, to move to let cars pass, but that's the least of it. They also said the children run into neighbors yards, pick up things from yards and porches, make a lot of noise, and adopt aggressive postures.
Neighbor Calvin Speed told Lagniappe, the centrist Mobile alternative weekly, that a few "hoods… looking for trouble" aggravated what was otherwise a merely unpleasant but not necessarily dangerous situation. "It's strictly been a racial issue that's been building," he said, adding that he personally has cordial exchanges with a number of other black residents of the street.
Anyway, on Saturday night, report the witnesses, the tensions seemed higher than usual. Owens, who is no shrinking violet, has a criminal record that includes arrests for domestic assault and driving under the influence. He was visiting people in the yard of 1013 Delmar when the trouble really began. Youths were running through various yards, causing commotion. Owens told them to stop. They didn't; instead repeatedly denigrating him as "white boy." As they argued in the middle of the street, some apparently went to get parents or other adults. It was the adults speeding up in three or four cars within five minutes, not the youths, who are described as basically going berserk. Owens tried to get to safety at 1012 Delmar, where he was staying. He made it to the porch but not through the door. The mob -- described variously as 15-20 people or, in one telling from a witness, as many as 40, although that is hard to imagine in such a short time period -- grabbed anything they could find as weapons. They beat Owens with paint cans -- paint clearly remained on his clothes and body in the hospital -- brass buckles, chairs, perhaps some bricks, and even some unlit tiki torches (used as sticks) that were in a neighbor's yard; they hit him mostly around the head, with a few kicks or other blows to the groin and stomach for good measure. Some describe the attack as lasting at least five minutes, with Owens screaming for help but neighbors unable to do much in the face of such a large mob.
Several witnesses (not just Owens' sister in the initial TV report) told me and other reporters that at least one of the attackers, a woman, said as she was leaving the scene that "This is justice for Trayvon," referring to the nationally discussed tragedy in Florida that took a black 17-year-old's life and led Sharpton to start his usual race-based histrionics and the New Black Panthers to put a bounty on the shooter, George Zimmerman.
When the Mobile incident was finally over and Owens was taken to the hospital, he was admitted in critical condition, with bruising on his face and jaw, extreme pain, deafness in his right ear, fluid in his abdomen and, most dangerously, bilateral subdural bleeding inside his cranium. By late Tuesday afternoon, his condition had recently been upgraded from "critical" to "serious." All day long the police had promised at least a couple of arrests in the case, as witnesses had identified some of the attackers, but as of 10 o'clock Tuesday night no arrests had actually been announced.
Mayor Sam Jones (see photo above) issued a statement: "Police will certainly explore a racial motive if the evidence supports it. This type of mob violence will not be tolerated. If people think we are going to tolerate that to bring attention to some national event, they are sorely mistaken. They will be arrested and prosecuted for assault or whatever the appropriate charge may be."
Nonetheless, the Mobile police department, at least in public, has been ludicrously behind the curve. Its spokesman said as late as Tuesday that the "Trayvon" statement could not be independently corroborated, even though it took this reporter less than five minutes on the street to find multiple people who say they heard it, and other news outlets reported the same.
It must be stressed that this is not the norm for Mobile. Mobile integrated peacefully in the 1960s even as the rest of Alabama featured infamous scenes of violence; the city elected Mayor Jones, who is black, in 2005 when the black voter registration percentage was in the low 40s. While nobody could honestly claim that racism doesn't exist around here and that it isn't obnoxious where it does, this is a coastal rather than "Deep South" city, one that has historically enjoyed at least a genteel comity among the races. This sort of incident is definitely an anomaly here.
All of which lends credence, although far from proof, to the idea that national race-roiling by the likes of Sharpton provided the match-light to an unfortunate tinderbox on one particular city street.
Now, however, look back to my opening paragraph. It's not really fair. It represents the sort of racially inflammatory cheap shot in which Sharpton and an unfortunate number of media mavens specialize. One woman may have made reference to Trayvon, but that doesn't mean that all 20 or more of the attackers had anything in their minds other than a criminal version of racial animus, further inflamed by purely street-level friction. I hereby take back the allegation that Sharpton "got what he wanted" when Delmar Drive produced a white victim. The allegation remains in the opening paragraph as a demonstration of how easy it is to stir racial tensions beyond the boiling point.
Oh, yes, of course it was racism, not some other motive, that caused George Zimmerman to pull the trigger. Oh, yes, of course it was right-wing hate that caused Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Gabrielle Giffords and others. Just like it was left-wing moral depravity and corruption of cultural norms that caused a woman named Susan Smith (according to Newt Gingrich) to deliberately drown her own children in an automobile.
This is crazy. These sorts of blanket-level blame games are outrageous. Yes, Sharpton has instigated violence before, and yes he has been wholly irresponsible with respect to the Trayvon Martin case. Yes, Attorney General Eric Holder was morally depraved when lauding Sharpton, just days after Sharpton's latest outrages regarding Trayvon Martin, while lifting not a finger to punish New Black Panthers for putting a bounty on Zimmerman's head.
But they aren't responsible for the brutal beating of Matthew Owens. Twenty or more individual attackers are responsible. But Lord Almighty, if Sharpton and Holder and their ilk aren't at least more obviously culpable indirectly for fomenting racial hatred than anything Sarah Palin said was responsible for the Giffords shooting, then Alice's rabbit hole has taken over all of reality.
A real leader with Sharpton's profile would travel to Mobile, denounce the Owens beating, announce that this is not how self-respecting members of any race should act, and call for swift and sure punishment for the attackers whether their motives were racial or "just" hateful and vicious without regard to skin color at all. Matthew Owens is a seriously injured man, not a seriously injured white man. And his attackers are criminal individuals who should be punished regardless of their skin color -- and made an example of the wages of mob violence, which cannot and must not be allowed to use race or even racial insults as pretext for outright thuggery.
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