By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post
What’s happening in Virginia Beach, Va., is the modern, electronic version of a cross burning; and it’s America’s return to front-lawn racism.
In a cul-de-sac in Virginia Beach, a Black family said they get a visual and aural onslaught every time they go in and out of their home, thanks to a network of motion detectors their neighbor pointed at their front lawn. Any motion — going to work, coming home from school, chasing a ball, unloading groceries -— unleashes a torrent of strobe lights, monkey noises and a snarky TV-show dialogue heavy on racial slurs.
“Whenever we would step out of our house, the monkey noises would start,” Jannique Martinez told WAVY-TV. “It’s so racist, and it’s disgusting. … I don’t even know how else to explain it.”
The neighbor’s alleged harassment of this family made national news this week, not only because it’s brazen and hate-filled but also because local police threw up their hands and said there’s nothing they can do about it.
“The city attorney and Virginia magistrates have separately determined that the actions reported thus far did not rise to a level that Virginia law defines as criminal behavior,” the Virginia Beach Police Department said last week. “This means the VBPD has had no authority to intervene and warrants were not supported.”
This is a police department that made 17,173 arrests in 2018, with 90 percent of them for nonserious and nonviolent charges, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute. Black people were arrested at a rate 2.5 times the rate white people were, according to the study.
Police handcuffed and frog-marched a Black man at a shopping mall, in front of his family and mall crowds, because he matched the description of a man suspected of credit card fraud. (They were wrong and uncuffed him.)
In the past five years, they have filed 26 incident reports of “glue sniffing,” 20 for people accused of making “annoying phone calls” and four for “bookmaking,” according to the city’s crime reporting system.
They arrested a man for being naked on the beach. Years ago, they arrested a woman for wearing a thong bikini there.
The Virginia Beach police, by the numbers, don’t appear to be lazy.
But it took an outcry by Martinez on social media for someone to notice what’s happening on Jessamine Court.
Supporters of the Martinez family gathered on the cul-de-sac for a protest Wednesday, and attorneys across the nation have been clamoring to represent them pro bono.
But beyond the legal wrangling of how to treat this is the appalling fact that it happened at all.
Racists remain emboldened; it is the enduring stench of the Donald Trump presidency, which created a safe space for Americans’ ugliest, bigoted thoughts to become front-lawn displays.
“I did it,” James Brown, 41, reportedly told a neighbor, after the street watched a cross burn in the yard of a Black family living in Marion, Va., last year.
He pleaded guilty to the crime this summer and is now in federal prison.
The key to his conviction was his admission that he did it to intimidate the family. When the Supreme Court wrestled with Virginia’s ban on cross burning in 2003 — which was being defended by some as free speech — it wasn’t the cross that was the thing that made it a hate crime. It was the fact that it was being done to intimidate.
If a church burns a cross in a celebratory marshmallow roast of solidarity on its own turf, a little like medieval Scots did (minus the s’mores), it’s ostensibly OK, according to that ruling.
So it’s the act of intimidation that should call Virginia law enforcement to action.
While systemic racism continues to pound African Americans at work, school, in the courts, at office cocktail parties, there seemed to be a basic social agreement that overt, cross-burning, Confederate-flag-waving racism was wrong.
And those who intentionally harbored such wicked views mostly kept them in basements, in the deepest caverns of the digital world, among like-minded creatures.
But when the tiki-torch terrorists marched in Charlottesville, Va., and flew Nazi flags in the summer of 2017, they were invited to display their hate.
I see it even in my parents’ small town in Northern California, where a neighbor who largely kept to himself for years began erecting flags and placards, first one in 2017, then another and another, and now his front lawn looks like the outlet store for white-nationalist supplies.
Meanwhile, there are people in power who question the biased patterns embedded in our nation.
“America’s not a racist country,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News this spring, underscoring his stance that “our systems are not racist.”
“Within every society you have bad actors,” he said.
Yes, our systems continue to struggle with equity. There is no way that a Wwhite Virginia Beach family of veterans would have to endure such intimidation from a Black neighbor.
And the bad actors are there, yes. But thanks to the open arms they’ve been shown these past few years, they’re becoming a permanent fixture on America’s front lawn.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team. Follow her on Twitter @petulad.