Hate crime involves culture, symbolism

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, Feb 10, 2012

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In a federal courtroom in Santa Fe on Jan. 25, Judge Black finally sentenced Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford of Farmington on federal hate crime charges related to the racially-motivated assault on Vincent Kee, a young mentally disabled Navajo man.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement, "Beebe was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison followed by three years supervised release.

"Sanford was sentenced to five years in prison followed by three years supervised release.

"A third defendant, William Hatch, of Fruitland, N.M., previously pleaded guilty in June 2011 to conspiracy to commit a federal hate crime."

Hatch received his sentence in federal court on Wednesday.

They were indicted by a federal grand jury in November 2010 on one count of conspiracy and one count of violating the Matthew Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act and were the first defendants ever to be charged under this law, which has extended the reach of the existing hate crimes law.

A lost hitchhiker

One night in April of 2010, Vincent Kee had gotten lost hitchhiking home from Gallup and found himself in Farmington at a McDonald's.

A McDonald's employee, Paul Beebe, according to the DOJ, "took the victim to his apartment, which was adorned in racist paraphernalia, including a Nazi flag and a woven dream catcher with a swastika in it."

Two other McDonald's employees, Jesse Sanford and William Hatch, joined them after their shift.

There, in the course of a nightmarish evening that the defense would attempt to characterize as pranks gone awry, they drew the words "white power" on the back of Kee's neck with a marker and an obscene picture on his back, shaved a swastika into his hair, and used markers to write the words "KKK" and "White Power" within the lines of the swastika, clearly identifying its intent.

Finally, Kee was assaulted. Beebe put a towel in his mouth to stifle his screams and branded a swastika on his arm with a wire hanger heated on the stove. The defendants recorded their actions on a cell phone as "proof" that Kee consented to their acts.

This last month Vincent Kee's adoptive mother, Bernice Silversmith, attended the courthouse sentencing to speak to the judge.

An official of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission was also present and a news release from the commission described how, "Moments before Beebe's and Sanford's sentencing, Kee's mother Bernice Silversmith addressed the judge with a Navajo greeting of well wishes, 'Ya'at'eeh abini,' explained she was there as the mother of Vincent and said, 'I would like to express my extreme disgust for the actions that Mr. Sanford and Mr. Beebe took against my son.'"

According to the commission, Silversmith continued, "They took something from him that he can never fully recover. They took away his trust in people. Before these men manipulated and attacked Vincent he was like a butterfly. He fluttered along making friends with people, greeting and shaking hands never realizing that evil exists in certain people..."

Kee's mother had asked for maximum time allowed by the law.

The family's courage

Both the commission and the U.S. attorney general's office thanked and acknowledged the Kee family for having the courage to pursue justice.

The commission concluded their news release by asking the public "for your continued support and prayers as Mr. Vincent Kee and his family continue on their path for justice."

For the Kee family, continuing to appear in court is a constant reminder of the trauma that has affected them all.

And the family expressed the wish, which was conveyed to this reporter, that the Navajo Times not publish photos showing what was done to Vincent both because it is an upsetting reminder to the family, and also because they have been harassed by Native youth gangs in their area.

Those youths, who reacted when they saw the graphic symbol of the swastika shaved into the back of Vincent's head, did not or could not read the article, and they somehow mistakenly thought he was a skinhead and not the victim of a crime.

As recorded in the indictment, Paul Beebe espoused white supremacist views. The FBI, which has been part of the investigation, was asked if connections to any white supremacist groups were being investigated and would only say, "The FBI doesn't answer questions. If we were investigating we wouldn't say."

White-power groups

What sort of danger does a white-power follower pose, and what are some signs that a local police officer should be aware of?

This question was posed in an email to the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Ala., which has taken on the KKK and other white-power groups in prominent court battles.

"They pose a danger and police should be aware of extremists in their communities," said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project for the SPLC, in response.

"We know about 10 percent of hate crimes are committed by racists and racist propaganda influences many others, so cops need to know if these people are active in their community," she said. "The signs to be aware of are hate graffiti, hate fliers and similar things."

The center maintains a national database on hate group activities and has an informational website at www.splc.org.

Another thing that people need to be aware of is that some heavy metal music bands espouse white power and incorporate their ideas and imagery into their music and album designs.

Symbol of hate

When used in popular culture today, the swastika is used as a symbol of hate.

Susan Seligman, New Mexico regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, explained to the Navajo Times, "For over 3,000 years, the swastika was a symbol of life and good luck. Since the Nazi regime adopted it as their symbol, the swastika has become a powerful symbol of hate.

"To the Jewish community, the swastika is a stark and frightening reminder of the horrific systematic murder of 6 million Jews in Europe during World War II," she said.

"Today the swastika is the calling card of haters and remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups," she said.

To underscore just how dangerous the power of a symbol can be, the use of the swastika is completely outlawed in Germany in connection with Nazism and has been removed from all public buildings there.

It was first used beginning in 1920 as a symbol of nationalist unity, and later branded into the psyche of Germany as the principal tool of propaganda for the Nazis.

The swastika has been used for centuries in India, and in Navajo healing ceremonials. Whether or not it can be redeemed now from its perverted use by the Germans in the last century is a question as yet to be answered.

Medicine man's view

In an interview conducted at his ceremonial hogan after the initial sentencing of Beebe and Sanford last fall, Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison, who recently retired as coordinator of the Office of Native Healing at the Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Facility, was asked to speak on how the Navajo people can best deal with a hate crime.

Dennison said, "As a medicine man, as a Navajo elder, what do I think about this? As a native practitioner, the first thing we think about is relationship. Who is the victim?

"As it is true with all spiritual leaders, this person is our child," he said. "This person is in need of support. If there is a person walking the streets, who is lost, they are our Navajo relation.

"They could be our grandchild, our brother, or our son, so we have that feeling, especially if the victim is in need of care," he said. "That it is not right for anyone to hurt him.

"We have a saying when something happens like that to our people, 'We bow our heads down,'" he said. "The pride in ourselves, the nation in ourselves is attacked. When something happens in a border town, or to our soldiers in a foreign country, we feel the hurt.

"We offer our prayers in the morning, or in the evening, for world peace, for the safety of our children, especially our handicapped children, whether they are young or middle aged or elderly," he said.

"We are all the children of Changing Woman," he said. "We are all to look out for each other. When something like that happens, that brings up the feeling of prejudice and the feeling of anger that the Indian people and the Navajo people have been treated, that in our history we look back to the way we have been hurt and we look back to the way we have been driven from our homeland to Bosque Redondo, all the hurt that our ancestors felt, that is just renewed.

"And then the question is, how should we handle thinking about the situation, immediately, and so that it never happens again?" he continued. "In our opinion, our reaction as Navajo elders, is (translated from the Navajo), 'Wait, in a calm, peaceful way, take time peacefully.'

"Maybe the warriors want to fight. But as a practitioner, we're considered as a peace maker - let's calm down, let's work it out in a way we can be able to deal with the situation and be safe, because we have many Navajo people walking the street nowadays and we have to think of them too," he said.

"And if we hear about something that happens to a non-Navajo, we also bow our heads, and think about it," he said.

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