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Brutal Triple Murder Rocks Newark

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On August 4, three college students were killed execution-style in an elementary school playground. Authorities arrested a sixth man on Sunday in connection with the killings. At least four are believed to be Latin American immigrants. We speak with Newark community organizer Larry Hamm, and we look at the case of Elvira Arellano, a Mexican woman who was deported this week after taking refuge inside a Chicago church to defy a government deportation order. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It was a triple brutal murder that rocked Newark, New Jersey. On August 4, three college students were killed execution-style in an elementary school playground. Police said the three were forced to kneel in front of a wall behind the school and were shot in the back of the head. The three Delaware State University students were 18-year-old Terrance Aeriel, 20-year-old Dashon Harvey and 20-year-old Iofemi Hightower. Aeriel’s 19-year-old sister Natasha also was shot in the back of the head, but survived and has helped police identify suspects.

Authorities arrested a sixth man on Sunday in connection with the killings. At least four of them are believed to be Latin American immigrants. All have been charged with three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, in addition to other charges.

Larry Hamm is a community organizer in Newark, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress. He joins me now in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

LARRY HAMM: Good to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened first.

LARRY HAMM: Well, it was a terrible tragedy. These young people, four college students, they live in the neighborhood. They went to the school, Mount Vernon School — several of them did — and it was a place that they were familiar with in the neighborhood, the playground in the back of the school. They were just back there chilling out.

Apparently, according to police, six men came in — some individually, some together — confronted the students. The police say it was a robbery gone bad, but there seems to be some controversy around that, as to whether it might be gang-related. However, the end result was three of the young people were killed, shot in the back of the head execution-style, and they attempted to kill Natasha Aeriel, but she survived and has helped to identify the suspects, according to police.

AMY GOODMAN: And how is the community organizing now? What are you calling for?

LARRY HAMM: Well, the community has been organizing around this problem of violence in Newark for years. There are a number of anti-violence groups, but we are part of a coalition, the People’s Organization for Progress. It’s part of the Peace and Justice Coalition. We’re having a massive march in Newark on Saturday, this Saturday, August 25, to call for an end to violence, but an end to war. We believe that all the violence should stop, the violence of the war in Iraq and the violence of the war that’s going on in our streets.

AMY GOODMAN: The weapons that were used?

LARRY HAMM: Well, according to police, it was a gun. And to my knowledge, only one weapon has been discussed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about weapons in your community, in Newark?

LARRY HAMM: Well, this is part of the problem. See, people have been talking about Newark in the last couple of years, the high homicide rate. But from since about 1997, 1998, the murder rate has been pretty consistent. It’s been 85 to a hundred — over a hundred murders every year for the last 10 years. And this is being driven by several root causes: abject poverty, astronomical unemployment and the illegal flow of guns and drugs into our community.

But this is not just a Newark problem. This is a national problem. There were more murders in Washington, D.C., last year than there were in Newark. And it’s a problem that confronts every urban area in the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, who denounced Newark’s leaders on Monday for providing sanctuary to, quote, “illegal aliens.” He said, quote, “Sanctuary cities are safe havens for all illegal aliens, including gang members, drug dealers, rapists and murderers, further exposing law-abiding citizens of such cities to greater crime.” This is an excerpt of the speech he delivered in Newark.

TOM TANCREDO: The fact that New Jersey — that Newark, New Jersey, is a sanctuary city for illegal aliens is well known. In addition, it has been widely reported that two of the alleged perpetrators of the heinous act, which occurred two weeks ago, Saturday, resulting in the deaths of three young students and the wounding of a fourth, are in this country illegally. Both have prior arrests on charges ranging from sexual assault on a child to robbery and illegal possession of weapons. If the alleged assailants are found guilty of these brutal crimes, Newark and its political leadership share a degree of culpability.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo. How are you dealing with what could be a big rift between immigrants and African Americans in Newark?

LARRY HAMM: Well, our position is that this issue should not divide the Latino and the African-American community. As you know, we have had a history of unity. It was the Black and Puerto Rican Convention in 1970 that led to the election of Ken Gibson. And I think that all progressive leaders in the city are being very careful to urge people not to turn this into a one group — immigrants versus non-immigrants, blacks versus Latinos.

This really is an issue of law enforcement, but it’s a deeper issue of the problems that confront urban areas. What is happening in Newark today is the direct result of the failure of the development of an urban policy for this country for the last 40 years. Anybody who would read Dr. King would know, even before he died he was saying that the government had turned its back on the poor, that the war in Vietnam was taking money away from the war on poverty. And that, in essence, has continued. And what we have now is the result of that: cities that are overwhelmed.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts, Roberto Lovato, on this — Roberto Lovato also joins us, he is a writer with New American Media, frequent contributor to The Nation magazine, former director of Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, the country’s largest immigrant rights group — when you hear Tom Tancredo?

ROBERTO LOVATO: I see business as usual that started back in '94 in California, the extension of the dynamics that gave birth to Proposition 187 there and now national. But they have kind of this new racial and national security bent. And it's — I agree with Mayor Cory Booker’s troubling quote that Tancredo would show up out of the blue and start saying all these things about immigrants, when in fact studies from Harvard, University of California-Irvine, show that immigrants are 45 percent less likely than U.S. citizens to commit crimes. And so, I would ask the question: Where is Tom Tancredo when most of the mass murders in the United States have been committed by white people, mostly middle-class? Where is the logic, the racial logic behind those mass murders?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to segue from this issue to other immigrant issues that have been surfacing now in another case. Immigration agents arrested and deported a Mexican woman who took refuge inside a Chicago church to defy a government deportation order. Elvira Arellano was detained outside a church Sunday in Los Angeles. She had been living in Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist Church for one year. Arellano is president of United Latino Family, a group that lobbies for families that could be split by deportation. She was born in Mexico, came to the country as an undocumented immigrant. Her son Saul was born in the United States and is a U.S. citizen. This is Elvira Arellano speaking from inside the church earlier this year.

ELVIRA ARELLANO: [translated] I am very pleased that the help has been so great from our community here in Chicago, as well as across the nation and internationally. This message has gotten out throughout the world, and no matter how humble this place may be, there are families who have been praying for my son and for me, and I feel very content. At times there are people that say, in truth — negative people that think I’m in some sort of prison, that not being able to go outside is no sort of life — “Who would want to live like that?” The truth is, the promise I have made is not with my priest, it is not with my bishop, not with the community. The promise I have made is with God. The house of God is not a prison for anyone, because God is present. I am content, not only because I know that not only will there be a solution for me and my son, but there is going to be a solution for millions of undocumented immigrants that are here in the United States living in the same situation.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Elvira Arellano. She was speaking a year ago, took refuge in a Chicago church, recently went to Los Angeles, where she was arrested and deported to Tijuana. Roberto, you spoke with her?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, I met Elvira around the time of that interview. And it’s just amazing to see the person that was interviewed just in that clip and the person I spoke to yesterday. The person I spoke to yesterday was relieved, was inspired, was telling me that she had now been a year in the church and she had time to really reflect on what she had done and had no regrets and was more determined than ever to continue the struggle and that, you know, her biggest concern is her son. It’s always been to be together with her son, and she’s giving her son —

AMY GOODMAN: Her son Saul is eight?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Her son Saul is eight. And she was concerned about statements people were making that her son was an instrument in her political agenda. And she just said that she wanted to dispel that up front and say, “No, my son is like any other child. He’s smart. My son is brilliant. My son thinks for himself. I’m giving him the option always.” She gave him the option to speak out or not. He spoke out. And she’s giving him the option whether or not he wants to return to Mexico to be with her. She thinks he eventually will, because he wants to be with his mother. He loves his mother. But she’s very, very inspiring to talk to.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this tie into this issue, the so-called “Amigos Summit” — Harper, Bush and Calderon — in Canada?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Well, the “Amigos Summit,” as they’re calling it, was primarily about trade and security, continuing the NAFTA agenda and adding kind of a national security component to it. And they believe that — you know, as we are watching immigration mold into a national security issue, the logic coming out of the Amigos Summit is that these guys don’t have any control anymore. Sovereignty is a concern in all three countries. In Mexico, people are concerned about U.S. influence. In Canada, people are concerned about U.S. influence. In the United States, you have conservative groups now saying that they’re concerned that there’s going to be one currency in the region, that there are rumors of a North American integration. And so, immigration — and people like Elvira provide, I think, a distraction and an excuse to militarize all three — at least Mexico and the United States, increasingly.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, I want to go to Larry Hamm. But one last question for you, Roberto. You did an interesting piece in Color Lines, the national news magazine on race and politics, called “Power from Below.” “The United States has started resembling another country, one whose nightmares shaped much of my thinking about peace and justice: wartime El Salvador.”

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah. I just came back from Michoacan, where President Calderon is from and where Elvira Arellano are from, and it’s kind of depressing to see a more militarized Mexico. There are 8,000 troops deployed there right now. And so, you know, at the same time I was also inspired by the activism. And I think that the activism of the immigrants rights movement is not dead. I think, in fact, it’s kind of the northernmost expression of this continental movement. And I think Elvira’s going to Mexico is just the beginning of the very clear transnationalization of the struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, when I read those words of Roberto talking about this country looking like wartime El Salvador, your final thoughts, Larry Hamm, as you’re dealing with this mass crisis, this triple murder in Newark?

LARRY HAMM: Well, what happened to those four young people was absolutely terrible, but it’s an ongoing problem. There were many — there were 60 other young people killed before that. We have to build a movement that addresses these problems. We have to build a people’s movement. We’re trying to start with that on Saturday in Newark, August 25th at Lincoln Park at 12:00 noon. We’re bringing together all the communities — white, black, Latino — to put together a people’s agenda that addresses the problems of our communities. And the fact is that even though we may live in different communities, our problems are interrelated. You cannot divorce what’s happening in Latin America, in Iraq, from what’s happening on the streets of Newark, in Trenton, Los Angeles and cities all across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Larry Hamm, community organizer, head of People’s Organization for Progress; Robert Lovato, writer with New America Media, frequent contributor to The Nation magazine, we thank you both for being with us.

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