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Death on the Fourth of July
The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America
By David A. Neiwert
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2004 David A. Neiwert
All rights reserved.
The man with the Confederate flag was rapping his knuckles on the windows of the gas station, holding the flag up and then pointing at the three of them, beckoning them to come out. He began drawing his finger across his throat and grinning at them. Rapping, rapping.
He was big—about six feet tall and 200 pounds, much bigger than either Minh Duc Hong or his twin brother, Hung, or their friend Doug Chen, all of whom stood at about five-foot-six and weighed about 125 pounds each. And the looming figure had a bunch of friends.
The three young Vietnamese men had already encountered them on the way in, after they had pulled up and parked at the little Texaco station. There were about five or six of them, young white men, all with shaved heads or close-cropped hair, and the group of them had shouted racist epithets—"gooks" and "slant-eyes"—as the trio walked the fifty feet or so from their car to the door of the store. The one with the Confederate flag had walked alongside them, mocking their language, calling out "Ching-chong!"
The mini mart seemed to provide refuge. There were another four or five people inside, and neither they nor the clerk seemed to be paying any mind to the yahoos outside. Minh Hong looked around and found the cup of noodles he had been seeking for a late-night snack. Then Doug Chen came over and pointed out the man at the windows to him.
None of the three were prepared for this. Both of the twins were shy and studious young men, and neither they nor Doug Chen were the fighting kind. In fact, though the Hongs were twenty-six, this Fourth of July visit to the seaside resort town of Ocean Shores, Washington, had been the first trip they could recall taking away from their hometown of Seattle without their parents.
Minh Hong looked around the store, and now the seeming disinterest of everyone inside had a darker cast to it. The man outside was still going from window to window and rapping at them and waving his flag. And as before, when he could see Minh looking at him, he ran his finger across his throat and grinned.
Minh looked around the store. He could hear a woman with whom his brother had spoken tell the clerk to call 911; the clerk looked briefly outside, saw nothing within his view, and refused. It was clear that no one was going to help.
That's when he saw the two paring knives, packaged in shrink- wrap with cardboard backing, hanging from one of the racks. He sidled over and, seeing no one watching, stuffed them inside the pocket of his puffy yellow jacket.
* * *
Small towns are vulnerable to hate crimes on two levels. It is not merely that certain conditions—such as racial and cultural homogeneity and an institutional disposition to paper over racial crimes—make rural areas prone to them. It is also that the ramifications from them are often so far-reaching that the communities themselves become chief among the victims.
Small towns are the kinds of places you're likely to find hate-crimes perpetrators, in no small part because of their racial homogeneousness. Contrary to popular conception, the typical hate criminal is not a skinhead inspired by hate groups, but is a fairly average person who otherwise fits in with his community—though of course, he also likely subscribes to an array of prejudices. The bigoted redneck and his violence-prone ethic is something of an overdrawn caricature, but he does exist—and in fact people with such attitudes are more likely to live in rural or suburban places precisely because they are predominantly white. Every town has them, and because they are known locally, their acts are often dismissed as mere rowdyism. And the winks and slapped wrists in turn are interpreted as permission.
When these people finally spiral out of control, only then does the town realize the consequences of its failures to act—which usually comes in the form of a severely damaged reputation. This is especially the case for a town like Ocean Shores, which relies on tourist dollars from nearby urban areas like Seattle and Portland, Oregon, for its economic health—not to mention its entire raison d'etre. A reputation for harboring racists can make all that dry up and blow away overnight.
Ocean Shores on a typical day is home to only about 3,000 people, but on busy weekends in the summers, crowds drawn by the five-mile expanse of bleached sand and pounding surf can make it grow to 50,000. The little police force of thirteen officers is typically undermanned and overworked anyway, and July Fourth can create an outright bunker mentality among beat cops.
More important, in a rural place like Ocean Shores—an hour's drive from Olympia, and three hours from Seattle or Portland—hate crimes are seen as alien things. Some of the myths about hate crimes, particularly those that represent them as the activities of organized hate groups like skinheads rather than the random acts they are typically, still hold sway with most law- enforcement officials, including prosecutors. When the cops know the perpetrators, perhaps as local troublemakers, they tend to deal with them on that level.
The natural reluctance of these towns to confront the problem because of fears for their reputations is reflected in national hate-crime statistics, compiled annually by the FBI. The bulk of the material contained in these annual reports is a series of long lists of law-enforcement agencies around the country reporting zero hate crimes—and the vast majority of these jurisdictions are in rural counties and small towns. In Washington state in 1999, for instance, nearly all of the 230 hate-crime incidents reported occurred in a handful of largely urban or suburban counties.
Since just the act of filing hate-crimes charges can bring intense scrutiny and headlines, small-town cops often treat such cases like the plague. That calculus played an important role in what happened on July 4, 2000 in Ocean Shores because the incident at the Texaco station was not the first hate crime in town that weekend.
* * *
The first warning came the afternoon of Saturday, July 1, when a claque of local young men terrorized a group of Filipino tourists. Two families comprising six men, six women, and three children had stopped at the Ocean Shores Mall—a strip mall of mostly tourist and gift shops—to use the restrooms when a group of ten white men, many with shaven or close-cropped heads, confronted them in the parking lot in front of a kite shop. Some of them were in a pickup truck festooned with a Confederate flag.
Apparently their appearance drew some stares or fearful looks, because one of the men—later identified as twenty-year-old Gabriel Rodda, a local man who lived with his parents in town—demanded to know of one of the Filipino men, Jose Kalaw: "What are you looking at?" Kalaw and the rest of the two families fled to their cars and locked the doors. Rodda walked up and stood outside, screaming obscenities and slurs at them, so Kalaw, who had jumped into the front passenger's seat of his van, told the person in the driver's seat to roll up the window. This apparently infuriated Rodda, who according to the police report, ran to one of the vehicles and punched a window. The Filipinos later told reporters that the men began chanting, "White power!" and shouting racial slurs. "What are you doing in our town?" they screamed, and "Ocean Shores is my fucking town!"; all the while blocking the vehicles from leaving. They pounded on the windows and dared the Filipinos to come out. (The damage, police later said, was minor, mostly marks and scratches on the glass and paint.)
Jose Kalaw, however, had a gun for which he had a concealed-weapons permit, and reportedly he contemplated using it. Instead, he pulled it out and set it on the dashboard as a kind of warning. Rodda and his friends backed off, and the families in their three vehicles pulled out of the parking lot and fled down Chance a la Mer, the main boulevard in Ocean Shores.
They went only a brief distance before spotting Ocean Shores officer Donald Grossi, and Jose Kalaw pulled over and got out to flag him down. Someone else had phoned police that a fight was brewing, and so in short order another Ocean Shores cop, Chris Iversen, had arrived in the parking lot and confronted the group of young white men; he was soon backed up by officer J. W. Brouillard. The men claimed that the Filipinos had picked the fight, although Rodda did admit to punching the vehicle's window; his hand was bloodied.
What happened next remains in dispute. Jennifer Kalaw, one of the family members, later told Seattle reporters that she and others had insisted they wanted to press charges against Rodda and the others, but that Grossi had discouraged them. When it became clear that was the case, she said, they pleaded with him to escort them out of town to ensure they weren't pursued by Rodda and the others. For his part, Grossi reported that the family did not want to press charges, and he stands by that account today. Both sides agree that the Filipinos asked for an escort to the edge of town, which he provided.
"It's really sad," Jennifer Kalaw said later. "It's a nice place to go and visit, but now I'm too scared to go back."
A few weeks later—after accounts of the confrontation hit the papers—Ocean Shores city officials sent the Filipino families fruit baskets and letters of apology, along with an invitation to come back.
"We will never, ever go back there," said Jennifer Kalaw.
The officers who dealt with the young white men stayed with them long enough to ensure that the situation was defused. The men continued to rant about the Filipinos, referring to them as "fucking gooks."
"I called the local boys around and admonished them for their racial attitudes and actions, which they all denied," said Brouillard in the report he filed five days later, "and then told them that if they keep this kind of thing up that one of them will eventually get killed."
* * *
It may have seemed like only a summer fracas, but in reality, the Ocean Shores police had almost certainly arrived at the scene of a Class C felony. Washington state's malicious-harassment statute—its version of a hate-crime law—makes it a crime to "threaten ... a specific person or groups of persons, or members of the specific group of persons, in reasonable fear of harm to person or property" if the act is committed "because of his or her perception of the victim's race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, or mental, physical, or sensory handicap." In this case, though, the incident was merely put down to "boys being boys," and the perpetrators sent on their way.
Among those young men was a twenty-year-old named Christopher Kinison, the only child of a single mother who had lived in the North Beach area. He'd attended high school in Ocean Shores, gaining a reputation as a "troubled teen"; he had brushes with the law for, among other things, dangerous-weapon possession and malicious mischief.
Many of his friends, though, grow angry at suggestions that Kinison was a racist. One of his best friends is part Filipino, and an uncle with whom he had good relations is black. They all say he liked to fight, and some contend that he merely used racist language as a way to start a brawl.
However, the rhetoric he was known to use suggests that at some level he subscribed to racist and xenophobic ideologies. And he had a history of bigoted behavior dating back to 1997, when he was investigated for a racial-harassment incident in town involving a group of black teens; no charges were ever filed.
Eventually Kinison dropped out of school, left home, and drifted fifty miles east to Olympia. He picked up construction work and came to town occasionally to visit friends, which is what he was doing that Saturday when his friends harassed the Filipinos.
* * *
Three hours after police escorted the Filipino tourists to the town border, a similar fracas arose in the tourist town of Long Beach, about two hours' drive south of Ocean Shores on the Washington coast. A private gathering of people from Seattle was on the beach enjoying a party when a caravan of pickup trucks bearing Confederate flags crashed the festivities. A group of young white men got out and began harassing the one Asian and one black man at the party.
"They were talking smack and looking for trouble," Eric Li of Seattle told the Seattle Times. "They were calling me 'Kung Fu' and saying, 'We want to fight you.'"
The confrontation was broken up by Pacific County sheriff's deputies, who merely dispersed the crowd and sent the party-crashers on their way. No names were taken, so no one could verify whether it was Kinison's crowd. But the men reportedly favored the "skinhead" appearance that the young men were sporting in Ocean Shores that weekend.
Two days later, on July 3, a black man from Seattle named Joe Scott was riding a moped along the drivable stretch of the beach near Ocean Shores when a man in a pickup drove by and shouted racial slurs, again waving a Confederate flag. Scott later said he thought it was Kinison, though he could not make a positive identification. He reported it to an Ocean Shores policeman, who did not take a report but assured Scott that he was "going to handle it."
Friends later said that Kinison had spent most of the day on the beach, hanging out for several hours drinking beer at a bonfire party at Point Brown, the southernmost tip of the sandy peninsula on which Ocean Shores rests. As the evening progressed, he and several friends—including Gabe Rodda and Brock Goedecke, a Marine out on leave who was tight with Kinison—moved northward a few miles to another beer party on the beach.
That same evening, Leo "Jay" Hayes, an Ocean Shores hotel employee who is African American, says he encountered Kinison at one of those bonfires. Hayes, who had arrived at the bonfire with a couple of white friends, said Kinison stepped forward from a group of people who were directing racial insults at him and introduced himself as "Chris," then threw a can of beer at him, pulled out a knife and threatened to stab him. "I turned and ran for my car," Hayes told an Aberdeen Daily World reporter.
Hayes says the man did not chase him for long, and he and his friends fled the scene in his car. Shortly afterward, a friend of Hayes's called him to say that he too had been threatened at a bonfire by a man with a six- to eight-inch knife. Hayes, waiting at the local Burger King, decided to call police. Two sheriff's deputies arrived and took down information. However, they took no further action, and had Hayes—who'd decided he would rather be home watching wrestling on TV—sign a waiver of prosecution.
Later that night, Chris Kinison, Gabe Rodda, Brock Goedecke and several other of their friends—all of whom had been drinking at the beach—made their way into town, hanging out for awhile after midnight at the same Burger King from which Hayes had called police earlier. Then, as the bars announced last call and a nearby bowling alley closed up, everyone made their way across the intersection to the Texaco station, loitering in the parking lot while friends grabbed a twelve-pack to head home with. And then the gold Honda with the Asian guys inside pulled up.
* * *
Minh Duc Hong and his twin brother, Hung, led remarkably protected lives for 26-year-olds. When they weren't working in their parents' little strip-mall diner, they were attending school. They spent most of their free time with their family or a small circle of friends in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood or in Bellevue, where they worked and attended school, and rarely strayed from that small world.
The family's teriyaki shop in Bellevue, as it happened, was not far from the offices of the newspaper where I worked from 1991 to 1996 as news editor, and I frequented the shop a great deal when I worked evening shifts (which was most nights). The teriyaki wasn't gourmet quality, but it was tasty, inexpensive, and ready quickly.
Excerpted from Death on the Fourth of July by David A. Neiwert. Copyright © 2004 David A. Neiwert. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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