STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. Demographic changes on Staten Island have contributed to tensions between different communities, leading to intolerance and violence, according to activists and leaders who are seeking a resolution to the recent wave of hate crimes on the island.
Staten Island is undergoing a process of change, notes sociologist Eugene Prisco, a retired public school teacher who worked in the school system for more than 30 years. Twenty-five years ago, there were no Mexicans here. He observes that Port Richmond was largely an African-American community, with some whites and Hispanics, but no Mexicans.
Prisco, who is a community organizer for the organization, "African Refuge," dedicated to serving young African immigrants, refugees and other low-income families, says that "now we see Mexican businesses and restaurants all over with a new presence in this community."
The former member of the Staten Island Board of Education doesnt think the recent attacks reflect a generalized sentiment among all African Americans, but rather just a group of young people. "No one is reaching these youth, who dont go to church or to school," he says.
As newcomers to the community, Mexicans have become easy victims of attackers since they leave work with cash.
Prisco, who has participated in various activities for young people, including sports and theater, believes that the police are not the solution to the problem, but that it is the job of churches, community leaders and schools.
At a recent community meeting held at St Philips Baptist Church, representatives gathered from various organizations including Communities United for Respect and Trust, the Immigrant Center, Eye Openers: Youth Against Violence, Make the Road NY, and Project Hospitality.
According to data compiled by the leaders themselves, Mexicans started arriving on Staten Island in significant numbers about 10 years ago, attracted by affordable housing and an attractive job market in landscaping, construction and restaurants.
A lot of people make their lives here without ever leaving the island, said Saúl López who, by contrast, lives in Queens and commutes two hours to work on Staten Island every day.
López, the organizer of Make the Road NY, said Mexicans do manual labor, but they make an effort to learn and better themselves. We teach English and computers to the men and women who come to class, some with their kids, he says.
However, he notes that in recent months, many students have expressed fears and have stopped coming to class. At night we close at 9:30 and some of them are afraid, but others say, Why should I stay home? and come, he says.
The 443,000 residents of this county have been the targets of the recent wave of hate crimes, according to figures from the 2000 Census. Authorities, community and religious leaders and neighbors in the area have joined together in the group "We Are All Staten Island" to analyze the problem, find solutions and unite the community.
On July 27, the Guardian Angels sent several of their members to patrol the streets of Staten Island to prevent further violent incidents.
Curtis Sliwa, head of the Guardian Angels, which has 150 members in New York and 5,000 worldwide, notes that historically, "Staten Island has been a forgotten county" that has not received the attention it deserves.
If these attacks had occurred in other counties, they would have acted immediately, says Sliwa, referring to the 11 hate crimes that have been recorded here since April.
Richmond County prosecutor Daniel M. Donovan says it is difficult to define a "hate crime" because one must look at the intent and not just the act itself.
Donovan says that of the recent incidents investigated by the police department as bias attacks, two have resulted in arrests for criminal charges. However, in both cases, the grand jury declined to bring hate crime charges against them.
Donovan says the wave of attacks on the island has nothing to do with the law passed in Arizona. He says the victims the majority of them Mexican make easy targets because they arent used to calling the police to report crimes.
Esperanza Santiago, of the Port Richmond Improvement Association, says this has been going on for years, but has become much more noticeable today. He adds that the attacks have not been limited to Port Richmond but have taken place on other parts of the island as well. They are also attacking Muslims, Russians and Jews, says Santiago, who works for the Richmond University Hospital.
Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, believes the attacks have nothing to do with hate or discrimination.
I dont want the public to get alarmed and say people are discriminating against each other, says Molinaro.
However, Mario Cuevas Zamora, of the Mexican consulate in New York, indicates that basically, there are certain patterns against Hispanics in these attacks. We must stop this type of crime from happening to the people it is happening to, says Zamora. It could happen to a Mexican, an Asian or a black person. Either way, we are against these attacks, he concludes.