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A 61-year-old white man accused of throwing battery acid in the face of a Peruvian immigrant and telling him to “go back to your country” was charged with a hate crime on Wednesday. According to a criminal complaint, the victim, Mahud Villalaz, was walking toward the entrance of a Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee when Clifton Blackwell confronted him about parking too close to a bus stop. Then he asked, “Why did you invade my country? Why don’t you respect my laws?” Ignoring the racist comments, Villalaz complied and moved his truck to a different parking spot. Blackwell continued to berate him, calling him an “illegal” and other insults. Villalaz replied, “everyone comes from somewhere first.” It was then that Blackwell threw battery acid in Villalaz’s face. Surveillance video recorded the attack, which left the victim with second-degree burns on his face. Villalaz is a U.S. citizen who immigrated from Peru in 2001. If convicted, Blackwell could face up to 35 years in prison.
“I’m angry that those elected who are in power have used dog whistles and enabled vile rhetoric – vile rhetoric that has led to last night’s attack,” said Wisconsin state representative JoCasta Zamarripa. “Racism and xenophobia that would move someone to commit such a heinous crime will not, and cannot, be tolerated.” Darryl Morin, from the organization Forward Latino, added, “I dare say it was premeditated – because no one walks around with a bottle of acid and hangs out in a predominantly Latino neighborhood for no reason.”
Unfortunately, there is no doubt that hate crimes are on the rise in the United States and are becoming a symbol of the rampant anti-immigrant sentiment ravaging the country. This attack comes amid a five-year upward trend in reported hate crimes in the U.S., according to the FBI. Studies have shown that rhetoric matters when it comes to these rising numbers, and many critics have accused President Donald Trump of emboldening white supremacists. Notably, after a young woman was killed during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Trump insisted that “there’s blame on both sides.” Moreover, white nationalist leaders including Richard Spencer and David Duke have publicly supported Trump’s candidacy and presidency, and the young man who killed over fifty people at a New Zealand mosque called Trump a “symbol of renewed white identity.” Regarding the attack on Villalaz, Milwaukee’s mayor Tom Barrett plainly stated, “This anger towards people from other countries is being fed by our president and by his followers.”
A study by professors Ayal Feinberg, Regina Branton, and Valerie Martinez-Ebers for The Washington Post examined whether there was a correlation between the counties that hosted one of President Trump’s 275 presidential campaign rallies in 2016 and increased incidents of hate crimes in the following months. They aggregated hate-crime incident data and Trump rally data to the county level and then used statistical tools to estimate a rally’s impact. They included controls for factors such as crime rates, the number of active hate groups in the county, and minority populations. They found that counties that had hosted a Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes in relation to comparable counties that did not host a rally. While this analysis does not guarantee that it was Trump’s rhetoric that caused people to commit more hate crimes, research does show that it is far more likely that hate crime statistics are considerably lower than the reality due to underreporting.
Now, with this latest and shocking attack on Villalaz, it is apparent that, even as everyone approaches a new electoral cycle, this wave of anti-immigrant and white supremacist sentiment has not faded, and incendiary rhetoric against minorities seems to have become the norm. Besides changes in leadership, research has shown that advocacy groups and social justice-focused protests have been instrumental in pressuring state governments to pass hate crime legislation. Legislation in many states now mandates longer prison terms for those convicted of even non-violent crimes when it can be shown that bias was a motive. The definition of a hate crime is also expanding, leading to greater protections. However, there is still a long way to go, with many blatantly biased attacks not being reported as hate crimes in government statistics. Legislation is key in preventing these crimes from slipping through the cracks.
For now, the lasting impacts of the hatred stoked by the White House can be seen on the face of Mahud Villalaz, and perhaps this is a reflection of the hate and hostility expressed towards immigrants in the United States – something that is far deeper than the fact of migration itself. With the upcoming presidential election, there is some hope that the vile rhetoric that leads to senseless violence will cease to be normal.