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Monday, May 26, 2014

Legal movie recommendation: "Shenandoah"

My wife's late father grew up in Shenandoah, PA (apparently, pronounced Shen'-en-doe-uh), a coal-mining town in east-central Pennsylvania populated (like many of these towns) by people of eastern European descent  (Poland, Lithuania, etc.). Back in the day, there was a small Jewish population in town that was received about as you would expect for the '40s and '50s; my father-in-law told of suffering anti-Semitic bullying (and worse) growing up and of rocks being thrown at the houses that were not decorated at Christmastime. My wife has not visited since she was a teen-ager (her family is gone from the area).

So she was struck to learn, belatedly, about a documentary called Shenandoah: The story of a working class town and the American dream on trial, released in 2012. It tells the story of the 2008 beating death of Luis Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in town, by six white members of the high school football team (who shouted ethnic slurs during the attack) and the ethnic, xenophobic, divisions it created in the community. Two players were tried on third-degree murder and related charges in state court, but acquitted on all but simple assault; they then were convicted of federal hate crimes (here is the Third Circuit opinion affirming those convictions). One player pled guilty to federal hate crimes and testified against the other two. And a fourth attacker was a juvenile and not tried as an adult; he cooperated and received probation. (Several police officers also were charged with various federal crimes for helping the players cover-up the crime, with mixed results).

The movie simultaneously tells the story of the murder and the subsequent state court proceedings, of the football's team's unsuccessful season following the attack (playing without several key players), and of a struggling industrial town and how it is dealing with changing demographics. It is definitely a film worth seeing. A couple of thoughts on the film and the story.

One is the role of narrative choice. A main participant in the film was Brian Scully, the juvenile who received probation for his role in the attack. Scully is portrayed very sympathetically in the film--he is remorseful and thoughtful about what they did and how wrong it was, and he is seen achieving some redemption in joining the school musical (the football coach would not allow him to play while charges were pending) and graduating. But the facts in the Third Circuit opinion describe Scully as being more centrally involved in the assault, including in shouting ethnic slurs. The movie shows that the state-court defendants tried to shift blame to Scully, but it portrays this as an unfair lawyer move (that was unfortunately successful).

Second the film portrays the ethnic tension as something new, a product of the town's relatively new economic struggles and the new wave of Mexican immigration. But my father-in-law's experiences suggest that this tension is nothing new; there always have been insiders and outsiders in this community and outsiders have not been treated well. And the smallness of the town (there was much "celebration" of the small town in the film) exacerbates those problems, because outsiders simply stand out more. One of the more disturbing events was a rally in support of the defendants, with attendees wearing shirts and carrying  signs with messages like "I'm American and I speak English" and singing "patriotic" songs. It degenerated into people shouting epithets and sexually offensive comments at the victim's (Anglo) fiancee, who was there as part of a counter-protest. The tenor of the rally was captured by a speaker who said something to the effect of "he didn't deserve to die, but if he had stayed in his own country, he'd be alive today." There concededly is no good way to protest on something like this without looking like a bigot. But you can help yourself by not saying and doing bigoted things.

Third, I did not know that the Fair Housing Act has a hate-crimes provision, which was the basis for the federal convictions of the two assailants. The provision criminalizes violence, threats, or intimidation because of the victim's race and because he is occupying a dwelling or with the intent to prevent him from occupying a dwelling. The goal would appear to be stopping cross burnings and other acts directed at keeping people from integrating neighborhoods. But in affirming the conviction, the Third Circuit made clear the statute reached all conduct motivated by dislike of particular people seeking to live in an area. Statements made during the attack about this being "our town" and telling the victim to go home to Mexico and that he did not belong in Shenandoah, along with evidence the defendants generally did not like the influex of Mexicans into town, all suggested an intent to intimidate him and other Mexicans from dwelling in Shenandoah.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 26, 2014 at 09:23 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

I never did understand the myth of the noble small town. It looks no more accurate than the long since discredited myth of the noble savage. Yet, like a bad cold, it just keeps hanging around.

Posted by: brad | May 26, 2014 2:16:31 PM

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