MOUNT VERNON — The League of United Latin American Citizens of Ohio has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation into a May 30, 2008, incident against a Hispanic minor.
Robert Cantu said he was dragged through a parking lot with a noose around his neck, and was the target of racial slurs.
In addition to conducting an independent investigation, LULAC is asking the DOJ to prosecute all parties involved in the incident, and investigate selective prosecution and police practices unfavorable toward minorities.
LULAC sponsored a vigil on Friday to, in its words, “further expose this case and the growing trend in hate crimes committed in Ohio.” About 120 people gathered on Public Square to listen to speakers from the community and organizations committed to social justice.
Tamara Parson, local organizer for the vigil, told the News why she thought it was important to get the problem of hate crimes out in the open and to make the community aware of the problem.
“When I heard what happened to the Cantu family, I spoke to them personally,” she said. “And I spoke to some other friends in the Columbus community and they said we should try to organize something in honor of them. So my friend Rubén e-mailed me and said we’re going to meet in Mount Vernon, so let’s talk with [the Cantus] and see what they would like to do. We decided a peaceful rally or demonstration would be good; but not just about their case, but to the larger issue of hate crimes.”
Jason Riveiro, state director of LULAC, was on hand for the rally and spoke to the News before the event.
“The whole situation around the Cantu case and the legal aspects of that, we’re not going to delve into that too much today,” he said. “More than anything, the Cantu situation is one that has allowed us to raise a greater concern, and this being one example. What you’re going to see here today is people from various backgrounds and communities; religious backgrounds, racial backgrounds, that have a concern with hate crimes and the increase in hate crimes across the nation and in Ohio.
“The Anti-Defamation League has rated Ohio seventh in the nation,” he continued. “That is a surprising number, considering the populations. But I also think that our legislators should try to enforce or create legislation that has stronger verbiage, stronger ramifications for people that do conduct hate crimes. No community is no exempt from hate crimes. Even Mount Vernon. We all have to be vigilant for it and accountable. We’re just trying to create that dialogue.”
A recent article in the Mount Vernon News pointed out some inconsistencies in the case based on information in recently released documents. Riveira commented about that information.
“On the inconsistencies, I can say that there are two sides to every story,” he said. “The police perspective is one aspect, but we also need to hear the family’s side, too. At the end of the day, the judge concluded it was a hate crime. When you match it up against any other judgment for hate crimes, it does not match up. The sentence does not equate.”
Riveira said he would not be talking about the legal aspects of the case; the fact that someone was hurt and someone was targeted because of their minority status is the issue he wanted to address.
A number of speakers addressed the audience, including Marcie Cantu, mother of the victim.
“Four young men punched, kicked and knocked my son to the ground,” she told the gathering. “They put a noose around his neck and drug him. They made their intentions that day very clear. My son feared for his life that day.
“This should have never have taken place anywhere. I placed my trust and my belief in our police department and our court system. And as a community we have to ask why the judge did not step down from this case. Why only 10 days for such a vicious act?”
Among those speaking was Dr. Tarunjits Singh Butalia, president of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio.
“This vigil is about how we can respond as a community to just one such expressed hateful deed,” he said. “Other communities have undertaken similar acts of standing up to be counted when violence has been directed at one of their own.
“Whether this incident in Mount Vernon came from hate or was a foolish thoughtless expression, it has become a symbol of hate, and we in the association call on our government to examine the incident more closely and report the findings to the public.”
After the vigil, members of LULAC met with local government representatives, including members of the County Prosecutor’s Office and the Mount Vernon Police Department.
“It was an open kind of dialogue,” said Assistant Prosecutor Charles McConville, “and we are looking to keeping up some contact in the future. We really wanted to try to get a handle on how to make sure these kinds of crimes are not underreported. And we’re looking for some other things to try and help with a growing Latino population in the county. We do have some limited resources in terms of people who can translate. We want to work on some of those issues that can help everybody out. Everybody agrees that when ethnically based crimes occur, they need to be prosecuted.”
Mount Vernon Police Chief Mike Merilees also attended the meeting.
“I did meet with Mr. Riveira and several other people with the organization [LULAC],” he said. “We just had a brief meeting that seemed to open lines of communication and seemed to be productive. We plan to get together to talk again sometime in the future.”