(From left to right): Panelists Professor Andrew Jackson, Joselo Lucero, Afaf Nasher and Anita Nagel
BY TRONE DOWD
Six individuals whose lives have been forever changed and shaped by hate crimes gathered at Queens Borough Hall on Tuesday night to talk with residents about the effects of this type of violence and activism aimed at ending it once and for all.
Moderated by Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, the panel took part in an emotional discussion detailing their encounters with hate and bigotry. The keynote speakers, Judy and Dennis Shepard, kicked off the talk with their story of losing their teenage son, Matthew—who was gay—in 1998. Matthew, a college student in Wyoming at the time, was beaten, tortured and left to die. His parents have spent the last two decades advocating against the kind of violence committed against the LGBT community that took their son’s life.
Their work came to fruition in 2009 when President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded the definition of hate crimes on a federal level to include those motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. But despite the victory, Judy Shepard said that the fight still rages on in her home state.
“We are one of five remaining states with no hate crime legislation at the state level,” Shepard said. “We have one for animals, but we don’t have one for people. The way Wyoming State sees it, any crime committed against a person is a hate crime. In our view, that means none of them have experienced a hate crime. Because if you have, you know that they are not the same.”
Following a short Q&A session with the Shepards, the panelists took the stage to share their stories of tragedy, heartbreak and advocacy. Joselo Lucero is an Ecuadorian native whose brother Marcelo was stabbed to death by seven white supremacist teens in 2008. The teens were all sentenced six to 25 years in prison for the murder.
“My brother’s dream was to come to this country and have a better life,” he said. “Our father died when we were 3 years old. My mother didn’t know how to read or write. But she raised four kids. And he wanted to help our mother. He came here to help her.”
Lucero explained that the last time she would see her son was shortly after he landed in America for the first time.
“No mother deserves to see their son taken away from them because he is different,” he said.
He said that he has since dedicated his life to speaking out against bigotry and become the community outreach coordinator for the Hagedorn Foundation. He speaks primarily to children and teens about acceptance, diversity and fighting racism.
Afaf Nasher, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY), fought back tears as she highlighted the countless hate crimes committed against the Muslim community throughout the country. She pointed out that in Queens, which is often applauded for its diversity, Muslims have been victims of vicious attacks. Last year, Queens was the home to multiple hate crimes, including the Ozone Park murder of Iman Alauddin Akonjee and assistant Thara Miah.
The eldest of the panelist was Anita Nagel, who told her story of growing up in Nazi-occupied Vienna during Adolph Hitler’s takeover of Europe. She recalled seeing the accepted marginalization of the Jewish people in the town she once called home. Her mother and other Jewish women were forced into manual labor. In November 1938, she witnessed ‘Kristallnacht,’ the night during which Nazi forces burned synagogues, Jewish homes, schools, hospitals and other buildings to the ground. One of the last things she would witness in her home country was her father’s arrest. He was taken to the Dachau concentration camp in Austria.
“You could see the swastika flags as people marched down the streets chanting, ‘where Hitler goes, Jews perished.’
That was the end of my childhood,” she said. “Overnight, you become another person. You have no more rights. You can’t go to school anymore. You can’t go to the movies. You can’t even sit on a bench in the park.”
Nagel warned everyone in the room against the parallels between the rise of the Nazi movement in Europe and the white supremacist “alt-right” in the United States.
“When I saw [the white supremacists] marching in Charlottesville, and I saw those faces, believe me, they looked exactly like the ones who were marching in 1938. No different. Hate is still here,” Nagel said.
Lastly, York College African American studies professor Andrew Jackson spoke of the black experience throughout U.S. history. He said that he has not faced tragedies—such as those inflicted upon the Shepards, Luceros or Nagel—but he knows that their experiences closely mirror the centuries of struggle that black Americans have faced. In solidarity, he recited the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again.”
The two-hour event was organized by the office of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Executive Assistant District Attorney Jesse Sly, of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown’s office.