By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
One week after two teenagers were beat up at the Bowling Green Waffle House, reportedly for being brown, more than 50 community members gathered at a church to prevent that type of attack from happening again.
Some were sad about the hatred and injustice. Some were mad that the community keeps waging the same battles.
“We are all appalled and disgusted by the totally unprovoked attack on these two men,” said Bowling Green City Council member Bruce Jeffers. “We abhor this kind of hateful attack.”
Two area men have been arrested for using racist slurs and beating up the two customers at the Waffle House. One of the victims reported the attackers said President Donald Trump would deal with immigrants like them.
Bowling Green Police Division has arrested Jacob Dick, 22, North Baltimore, and Zachary Keller, 21, of Custar, for felonious assault and ethnic intimidation.
Waffle House employees told police that two men walked into the restaurant, and another table of men began to harass them, calling them racial slurs for Hispanic and black people. Three employees said the two victims – Justin Hartford, 18, of Mount Cory, and Zarrick Ramirez, 18, of Findlay – did nothing to provoke the others.
After paying their bills, Dick and Keller went over to Hartford and Ramirez’s table and began assaulting them.
“They do not embody anything about Bowling Green,” Jeffers said about the men arrested for the attack
For two years, Bowling Green officials have been working to show that this community is a welcome place for immigrants.
“It feels like a setback to our efforts to be a welcoming city,” Jeffers said. “We gather here tonight to find a way we can simply do better.”
But while city leaders and residents may say “this is not who we are,” Susana Pena has heard that too often over the years.
“That is part of what Bowling Green and Northwest Ohio is,” Pena said.
The community may be in denial, and blind to the “daily injustices, slights and acts of racism that never reach the newspaper,” she said. “This is our community. That’s not saying that this is who we want to be.”
When Not In Our Town was founded a few years ago, Pena thought this battle was put to rest.
“I feel like we’re reinventing the wheel. Didn’t we have that conversation four years ago,” she said.
That frustration was also voiced by Beatriz Maya, director of La Conexion, which organized Sunday’s meeting. She pleaded for city leaders to take a strong stand to prevent further hate crimes.
“I’m expecting them to react urgently,” Maya said. “I’m tired of these conversations, then everybody goes home and nothing is done.”
Both La Conexion and Not In Our Town are non-profit, volunteer organizations with shoestring budgets.
“I’m asking for help, we can’t do this alone,” Maya said to city officials.
Maya said she spoke to one of the victims. “He’s really destroyed,” she said. “He can’t believe what happened.”
Bowling Green State University President Rodney Rogers voiced his dismay about the attack. One of the victims is a high school senior who was planning to attend BGSU, but is reconsidering that now.
“It did happen in our community,” he said. “And I want to make sure people are aware of this.”
Rogers offered BGSU’s support.
“We are ready and willing. We want to engage in very active ways with our community,” he said. “Please tell us how we can help.”
Several suggestions were made for the community’s next steps.
City Council member Sandy Rowland asked about efforts to educate businesses about how to respond to such hate attacks.
“Let’s not let this feeling so disappoint us that we lose our energy,” she said.
Rev. Mary Jane Saunders, of the city’s Human Relations Commission, agreed that business employees should be equipped with a protocol to follow in cases of ethnic discrimination.
“If we really want zero tolerance, we have to say, ‘no,’” Saunders said.
Though many praised the employees at Waffle House for trying to stand up for the victims during the name calling, others said that the attackers should have been thrown out before it got physical. And others noted that the employees were likely young minimum wage workers put on the frontlines without preparation for such an incident.
“At the first insult, you need to leave this establishment now,” Maya said. If the verbal attacks persist, the police should be called.
It was suggested that businesses completing the training could then post decals stating they are “zero tolerance” establishments.
Former city council member Daniel Gordon suggested that some bystander training also be offered in the community.
“These folks could have been killed,” he said of the victims at Waffle House. But many people don’t know what to do when they witness the verbal abuse that led up to the physical attack.
“Maybe we can train people to not be afraid to confront people,” he said.
A representative of a mixed martial arts program in Bowling Green offered self-defense classes to people who want to be able to diffuse situations.
Melanie Stretchbery suggested that community residents may also need to be educated that racism still exists. In the last few days she has heard from people on Facebook that they are blind a person’s color and racism doesn’t exist here.
“It’s as if you are saying people of color are invisible,” Stretchbery said. “We need to acknowledge we have some learning to do in our community.”
People who live with white privilege need to see the subtle, insidious acts that are racial discrimination.
“Tolerance is what you do when you get a shot at the dentist’s,” she said. “We need to learn to honor and respect each other – not tolerate each other.”
But then the problem becomes – how to reach the people who need educating. Saunders noted that when programs have been held in the past, it’s normal for the same 20 to 30 people to show up.
“How do we make people learn,” she asked. “People have to hear it over and over and over again. We need to keep bombarding people.”
Emily Dunipace, co-coordinator of Not In Our Town, suggested a door-to-door campaign.
“We have to take our message to them,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do. We’ve got to get started.”
Some suggested that the root of the problem can be found at the national level.
“We live in a time where intolerance is encouraged,” City Council member John Zanfardino said.
Neocles Leontis agreed, and suggested that the Wood County Republican Party and Congressman Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, be asked to state that this type of hatred is not tolerated here.
“These ideas are percolating down to our young people from the top,” Leontis said.
Some of the conversation focused on the two men arrested in the attack.
“We have to get the maximum penalty for these guys,” Rowland said.
John McRae suggested the men be ordered to perform community service, since they have hurt the city deeply.
“You owe something to the community you damaged,” McRae said.
When one person asked about alcohol contributing to the incident, rumbles of disagreement could be heard in the room.
“Alcohol doesn’t make you racial or intolerant. It may make you dumber,” one man replied.
In an effort to show support to the victims, it was suggested that community members sent cards to them, expressing their sadness about the incident.
In order to create more awareness, it was suggested that a certain color of ribbons be placed on trees in town, that “Hate Has No Home Here” possibly be a theme of a Firefly Night this summer, and that a solidarity festival be held on the Wooster Green.
Members of La Conexion and others plan to attend the next City Council meeting on April 15, to ask for the city’s help in preventing such racist attacks in the future.