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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Vigilante (City) Violence

The City of Philadelphia made the national news again. This time it was because a band of neighborhood men, mostly teens, descended on alleged rapist Jose Carrasquillo and beat him to a pulp with fists and large boards. Carrasquillo is a “person of interest” in the ugly and brutal attack on an 11-year old girl, a major crime that deserves prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. At the time of the attack on Carrasquillo, no charges had been filed against him. As a “person of interest,” he was, technically, not yet “targeted” by the District Attorney’s Office.
Ironically, some 48 hours prior to the attack on Carrasquillo, another man was attacked by vigilantes who mistook him for the rapist of the young girl. The man was beaten to a pulp as vigilantes held him down and called police. When the police arrived, the man was released because he was not a suspect. The beaten man just happened to resemble the police sketch of the rapist. According to news reports, the man received no apology from the police for the apprehension, and the vigilantes who attacked him were not arrested.
In these money-hungry, recessionary times, the $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the rapist is pretty lucrative bait. The vigilantes who attacked Carrasquillo at Front and Clearfield Streets no doubt had money in mind, but what they did was a crime, and they should have been charged with aggravated assault. Instead of beating Carrasquillo, they should have held him down until police arrived.
Some call the vigilantes heroes for what they did but the ‘hero-labelers’ have it all wrong. The vigilantes were thugs who took the law into their own hands, men who opted to act as judge and jury. While they had every right to make a citizen’s arrest and hold Carrasquillo until police arrived, they had no right to kick or hit him with boards. They had no right to draw a crowd and turn the beating into a circus act, with neighbors cheering them on like a 19th century lynching. Philadelphia’s name is not Nathedral-town the last time I checked. The emotions of an angry mob are never to be trusted. Mob mentality is simplistic: it feeds on primal instincts that must be held in check if we are to live in a civilized society. This is why we have a court of law.
Anyone who’s been the victim of a crime understands the emotional outrage that comes after the fact. When I had my wallet stolen recently by an anonymous thug in a local WAWA, I imagined myself giving the thief a good beating. But the “beating” took place in my mind, not in reality. In real life if I had snuck up to the thief with a weapon and inflicted some kind of violence, the end result would most likely be a legal problem. Violence has a tendency to breed violence: even a simple fistfight could end in death, as well as a murder charge.
While having a wallet stolen in no way compares to the trauma of rape, vigilante violence is the wrong response for all crimes. Vigilante violence cannot be acceptable in some cases and unacceptable in others. It is not for a mob to decide which crimes merit greater punishment. The neighbors who gathered around the men and applauded the beating are also not blameless. Until Carrasquillo is convicted by DNA and by a court of law, his “innocence” must be presumed, however shocking the crime. Our entire legal system is built on this concept.
This is not to minimize the brutal nature of the alleged rapists’ crime. Let’s hope that Carrasquillo, if found guilty, is prosecuted to the max, and that he gets his just deserts in prison (and we know what that is). But turning vigilantes into local heroes sets a dangerous precedent.
Adding insult to injury, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey announced that no charges will be filed against the group who beat Carrasquillo.
“It’s shocking that the police are not going to do anything in response to what is essentially mob violence against this guy,” ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper told the Associated Press. “This went beyond apprehending the guy.”
It is also unfortunate that Mayor Nutter didn’t step up and acknowledge the wrongness of the vigilantes. When Mayor Nutter said, “Philadelphians care passionately about this city, about our quality of life and certainly about our children,” was he thinking about the innocent man who was beaten by vigilantes before Carrasquillo was apprehended?
Don’t tell me that “caring passionately about a city” means that you have to be part of an unruly mob.
Thom Nickels can be reached at

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