An Ugly Incident

Our View: The Cowardly Beating Of An Elderly Black Man By A White Supremacist Shocks A City, But The Attack Is More Likely An Isolated Incident Than Frightening Trend

August 23, 2009

Even in a city where so many of us have become inured to violent crime, the vicious beating of 76-year-old James A. Privott, allegedly by a self-described white supremacist, last week at Fort Armistead Park was particularly unsettling and repugnant.

Not just because the victim, a state government retiree who was doing nothing more provocative than fishing - and who had no water or cigarettes to share with his assailants - was hospitalized with a fractured eye socket and two missing teeth, but because of the questions it raises.

Chief among them is this: Are the three men charged with attempted murder and other offenses an anomaly in our community, the incident a rare convergence of a wholly innocent person and a roving pack of sociopaths? Or are they harbingers of some cancerous outbreak of racial hatred awaiting its moment to manifest - or perhaps reassert - its ugly presence?

Clearly, there are some who are worried about the latter, or at least that the attack may lead to similar incidents. It is instructive that even in the so-called post-racial age of Obama, these worries can be raised so easily by one isolated incident.

Such concerns are born of this country's long history of racial violence and oppression, which continues to haunt the present with the specter of a tragic past. But despite the heinousness of last week's unprovoked attack, more than 40 years after the riots that tore Baltimore apart, the overwhelming majority of citizens today have come to deplore the kind of mindless intolerance and brutality shown in this assault.

While there may always be individuals so consumed by hatred and anger that they will seek any excuse provided by a twisted ideology to vent their frustration and lust for power on the vulnerable and weak, we firmly believe Mr. Privott's attackers are less harbingers of the future than sick misfits in a world that is rapidly passing them by.

Calvin E. Lockner, the 28-year-old apparent ringleader of the group and self-described white supremacist, is a convicted sex offender who in the past has been charged with raping a 4-year-old girl and attempting to kill a 39-year-old woman. He is a violent repeat offender and a hater who should never have been allowed back on the streets after serving only a fraction of his 20-year sentence, even after violating his parole.

Less is known of Zachary Watson, 17, and Emmanuel Miller, 16, the two juveniles who have been charged as adults with attempted murder and other offenses for participating in the attack. Though the older youth had no juvenile criminal record, the other has two previous convictions, most recently one in March for theft. It's easy to speculate that the juvenile justice system failed to deter him from further criminal acts, but it's more likely that Mr. Lockner's involvement was the decisive influence on both youths.

One hopeful sign in this awful tale of brutality and bigotry is that while it shocked all Baltimoreans, it also gave the city an opportunity to rise above its "Stop Snitching" culture. And it seems that Baltimore did just that. As The Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton reported Friday, residents approached officers, called in tips to the homicide unit and even shot e-mails directly to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.

"I think it speaks to people's moral compass about how they feel about this crime," Mr. Bealefeld told reporters.

The tipsters, revolted by this crime, stuck their necks out, perhaps at greater risk than we know, and one can only hope their example will inspire the rest of the city to follow their lead in helping police to track down and apprehend the criminals who prey on law-abiding citizens.

In the meantime, our hopes and prayers go out to Mr. Privott and his family during this difficult time. And we are hopeful that the rest of our community - united in disgust over this sickening event - will ultimately recover as well.

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