Monday, January 30, 2006

Boy's vicious beating raises fears in Philadelphia's Liberian community

Kathy Matheson:

The boy's beating was brutal: He was punched in the mouth and then stomped on by a group of youths until his jaw was broken and he had bleeding on the brain.

Jacob Gray, the 13-year-old victim of the Oct. 31 attack, had only been in the country six weeks. A Liberian, his family had just moved here from a refugee camp in Ghana.

The city was appalled - not only that it had happened to a boy on his way home from middle school, but that the reported motive for the attack was simply that Gray was an immigrant.

Members of the Liberian community, who number about 15,000 in this city of 1.5 million, said the beating was evidence of long-standing if rarely documented tensions between the city's black immigrants and American-born blacks.

Though authorities said it appeared Gray was attacked because he was mistakenly labeled a snitch in a drug arrest, the schools and city have taken steps to ease the fear and anger the beating stirred in the city's Liberian enclave, one of the country's largest.

Three teens were charged in the assault. Town meetings were held. A citywide hearing was conducted. And the school district did everything from offering Gray new educational options and buying him requested Spider-Man paraphernalia to creating student "heritage clubs" designed to promote cultural understanding.

Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, responding to complaints that immigrants are too scared to report problems, suggested creating an African-immigrant advisory council, though it hasn't met yet. Area churches are also trying to foster cultural exchanges between adults.

"Out of something unfortunate, some fortunate things have happened," said Teta Banks, honorary consul general for the Liberian consulate in Philadelphia.

But some say relations will improve only when attitudes change.

Liberian immigrant M. Sekou Kanneh, who runs an African music and video store in the neighborhood, said American kids look at their West African peers "as less than human beings." He said his son was called a "black monkey" at school.

Dixon Daye, an immigrant restaurant owner, said Liberians are resented by American-born blacks because of their work ethic; many of them put in long hours to support themselves here and send money back home. The unemployment rate for blacks in Philadelphia is 13.6 percent, nearly twice as high as it is for whites, according to the most recent federal labor statistics.

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