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Police investigate graffiti as possible hate crime

By Bianca Montes
Aug. 5, 2014 at 6:51 p.m.
Updated Aug. 5, 2014 at 11:56 p.m.

The residents at this Power Street home were the victims of a vandalism that occurred overnight when someone spray-painted a negative racial comment on the home's outside wall. The family had several bicycles stolen earlier this summer in the  neighborhood near Patti Welder Middle School.

Hate Crime Statistics in Texas

In 2012, 41 percent of hate-crime bias motivation was racial. Thirty-one percent was motivated by sexual orientation, 14.6 percent by ethnic or national origin and 13.4 percent was religious.

Report of incidents, victims, offenders and offenses were all up in 2012 compared to the previous year. Reported offenses had the largest climb of almost 20 percent.

Of the religious-based hate crimes in 2012, anti-Jewish was the highest, with a reported 11 offenses.

The majority (37 percent) of hate crimes are committed at a home.

White people and unknown racial groups make up the bulk of offenders of hate crime; 39.6 percent are white and 37.9 percent are of an unknown group.

Vandalism sticks out as the primary hate crime offense, with 62 out of 177 offenses reported. Simple assault is the next most common offense, with 55 reported cases.

Source: Texas Department of Public Safety

A Victoria woman learned racism is still a reality when she saw the words "Go back to Africa" spray-painted across her home.

Ernestine Williams had just woke up Tuesday morning when a loud knock on her door side-tracked her trip to the kitchen for a fresh cup of hot coffee.

"Who is it?" she called out, not expecting company.

It was the police.

Williams just about jumped out of her skin and ran to the door. After all, the last time an officer was at her home was when her grandchildren's bikes were stolen. The officer asked whether she knew her home had been vandalized with graffiti - she didn't - and the two walked around the front of the house.

Across the front of the small white house in the 1800 block of East Power Avenue, the words "Go back to Africa" were spray-painted.

Williams is a black woman.

She's lived in her home with her daughter and grandchildren about five years and in the neighborhood about eight years.

The words stung.

"I really don't know what I thought," Williams said. "I just felt hurt and shocked someone would do this - I really don't know how to stomach this."

Williams never had a problem with a neighbor. She referred to their relationships as cozy, social.

She'll say hi. She'll wave, but other than that, she keeps to herself.

Williams said she does not know who would write something that vulgar on her home or why.

Keith Akins, criminal justice graduate studies director at the University of Houston-Victoria, said when a hate crime is committed, it doesn't just affect the victim, it also affects the victim's community.

"Now, all of a sudden, all the black people in that community are afraid," he said "Because the message has gone out to their whole community that (they're) not welcome."

Akins, who teaches at the Victoria and Sugar Land campuses, has primary expertise in religious and group violence, particularly hate crimes and terrorism.

"You live in a community, you're working there, your kids are going to school there, and you feel you're a part of the community," he said. "Then, all of a sudden, you find out that you and everyone like you is targeted. Hate crimes really go a long way to breaking down community."

Gabriel Trevino said he's lived in the same community all of his life, and although he doesn't know the Williams family, he passes their house every day. He, like many others, saw the graffiti Tuesday morning.

"I felt sick and disappointed and angry at the same time," Trevino said. "That is a modern-day burning cross."

Trevino said the area, which is also referred to as Brownson Terrace, is a diverse mix of hard-working, middle class people. Hate crime isn't something he's ever seen there.

"I never expected to see something like that," Trevino said. "It was a real reality check that this is the world we live in as Americans. It's easy to forget or pretend that it's not there."

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, hate crimes are defined as crimes motivated by prejudice or hatred. The Federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act describes them as crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability.

The 2012 Crime in Texas report showed the largest percentage of hate crimes reported were racial in nature. Anti-black hate crimes made up about 30 percent of statistical data.

Sheila Rodriguez, who lives across the street from the Williams family, said her first thought about the graffiti was that it was a hate crime - a racist attack against her black neighbors.

"Why would someone do that?" she questioned.

In both 2010 and 2011, there was one hate crime reported by Victoria law enforcement. In 2012, there were none.

Since the beginning of the year, 155 acts of vandalism - classified as criminal mischief - were reported.

The Victoria Police Department is investigating this particular case, spokeswoman Detective Tanya Brown said.

There are no witnesses or suspect information currently, she wrote in an email.

Brown said the graffiti has some indicators that imply it may be a hate crime, but that a necessary component of a hate crime is intent. The investigation, she said, will include establishing intent.

Like terrorism, hate crimes are committed not only to send a message to the victim but to a whole group of people, Akins said.

"In that way, it has a much wider effect on society than just a crime of passion, for example, would have," he said. "The way I illustrate that in my class is: You're reading the paper; you read an article about somebody gunning down a drug dealer. It doesn't affect you because you're not a drug dealer; you're not involved in that kind of thing, so it's just another story.

"But if there was a serial killer that was going out and specifically killing 20-year-old blond women selected at random, then that would affect everybody who was a 20-year-old blond woman, everybody that has a member of their family that fits that description, everybody who had a girlfriend that fit that description."

Williams doesn't know whether she is shocked or just upset about the graffiti, but she definitely said she is not naive.

"I know racism is still very much alive; I know it's out there," she said. "I can sit here and worry that my kids will be targeted or picked on because of this, or I can tell them they're children of God and that this is not going to put fear on us. The only person we fear is God."

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