Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America
by Mark Potok
AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY UNFOLDED ON THE FOURTH OF JULY several years ago in the aging tourist town of Ocean Shores, Washington. It involved a group of racist skinhead thugs, a police force that was reluctant to act, and an unfortunate young Asian American named Minh Hong. In the end, one man lay dead, a town's reputation was in tatters, and Hong was changed forever.
David Neiwert, a keen-eyed journalist, student of racial hatred and native of the Pacific Northwest, thought he smelled a story—a story that could throw light on the meaning of hate crimes and the need for the hate crimes laws that have sprung up across America since the late 1980s. And he was right. The encounter between Minh Hong and Chris Kinison, a brutal local white kid brandishing a Confederate battle flag, turns out to contain important lessons for the rest of us.
On the face of it, the collision was simple enough. Hong, his twin brother, and a friend who was also Asian-American pulled into a crowded Texaco mini mart in the predawn hours of July 4, 2000, looking for a snack. As they walked to the station, they were assailed by a group of young toughs led by the flag-waving Kinison, who screamed racial epithets at the trio. Frightened, Hong stole a pair of paring knives before he and his companions left the store. When Kinison attacked Hong's brother as the group tried to depart, Hong intervened, ultimately stabbing the unarmed Kinison twenty-three times. Kinison died in a pool of blood on the tarmac.
Was it simple murder? Had Hong "brought a pistol to a fistfight," in the Western vernacular of the region? Or was there something more to it?
Neiwert argues convincingly that there was. Kinison and his friends had been involved in an escalating series of serious racial confrontations with blacks and Asians in the three days leading up to the killing. In each incident police, for reasons that in retrospect seem weak at best, declined to bring charges or even detain the whites, who were well known as local troublemakers. And, as Neiwert points out, the death threats and curses directed at the three Asian Americans before anyone was killed that July 4 almost certainly amounted to a felony hate crime—a critical and ignored fact that colors everything that happened in the minutes that followed.
But local prosecutors, police, and residents didn't see it that way. Minh Hong was charged with first-degree manslaughter—while none of the thugs who had threatened Hong and the others were even arrested. Town officials, police, and prosecutor Gerald Fuller all suggested that Kinison had acted inappropriately and perhaps even illegally, but that Hong was the real criminal. Townspeople reacted angrily to the attention the case brought to Ocean Shores, even as Kinison's high school friends built up a makeshift memorial of flowers and poems.
The essence of the Minh Hong case is not that unusual. Time and time again, local communities and their officials—particularly in rural towns like Ocean Shores that have precious little experience with major hate crimes—have tended to ignore and excuse local troublemakers as basically decent kids out for a rowdy good time. A part of the fault lies in an innate human tendency to make excuses for the people we went to school with and know well. But a bigger part of the responsibility is due to a lack of hate crime training that teaches police officers how to recognize and deal with the essential elements of a hate crime—a lack that is exacerbated by the failure of the federal and most local governments to pay for such training.
These shortcomings have resulted in uncounted instances of failed criminal investigations and prosecutions of hate crimes. They have buttressed the feeling of many minorities that much of rural America is a dangerous place, best left unvisited by the wise. And, in the case of Ocean Shores, they threatened to compound the tragedy of one young man's death with the martyrdom of another.
In this book, David Neiwert explores the killing of Chris Kinison, the trial that followed it, and the history and meaning of hate crimes legislation in America. At times, his writing is extraordinarily penetrating, using the details of a single death to flesh out and explore a history that began, as he shows, with early efforts to pass anti-lynching laws more than a century ago. It is a technique that,more effectively than any other, makes clear that the understanding and prosecution of hate crimes is not only justifiable. As Neiwert shows, it is essential to defending the democratic values that we, as Americans, should all feel bound to champion.
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.
In July 4, 2000, three young Asian-American men from Seattle took a road trip to the resort town of Ocean Shores, Washington. At a gas station minimart, they encountered several white skinheads, who started menacing them by shouting racial epithets. Trapped in the mini mart, the five-foot-six, 125 pound Minh Hong grabbed two paring knives and stuffed them into his jacket pocket. Returning to their car, Hong's group found a 200 pound, twenty-year-old skinhead named Christopher Kinison blocking their way, holding a Confederate flag. The ensuing melee left Kinison fatally stabbed, and six months later, Hong stood on trial for murder. During the proceedings, Hong was asked why he had fought so hard. He replied, 'I just knew I didn't want to end up like that guy in Texas,' referring to James Byrd, the black man dragged to his death by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. David Neiwert uses Hong's case to explore the myths surrounding hate crimes, delineating what is and is not a 'hate crime,' and reveals the patchwork nature of federal and state hate-crime laws and their enforcement.
Chapter 1 The Knives
Chapter 2 Fireworks in Red
Chapter 3 Open Sores
Chapter 4 White Faces
Chapter 5 Growing Up American
Chapter 6 The Trial, Day One: Rashomon
Chapter 7 Hate, American Style
Chapter 8 The Trial, Day Two: Rashomon Redux
Chapter 9 The Hate Debate
Chapter 10 The Trial, Day Three: Reason and Rage
Chapter 11 The Mythology of Hate
Chapter 12 The Trial, Day Four: In Fear
Chapter 13 Wall of Silence
Chapter 14 The Trial, Day Five: In Closing
Chapter 15 The Great Divide
Chapter 16 The Verdict
Chapter 17 The American Landscape
Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America by Mark Potok
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