Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), an advocacy group based in Boston, claim the Worcester Police Department has failed to properly investigate an alleged hate crime and is calling on the city's mayor and police chief to publicly condemn the incident.
According to a letter released by the group, Latoya Lewis, who is Black, was the victim of a verbal assault and violent altercation involving a white gas station attendant. The incident is the latest in a string of reported racist interactions across the state.
'I Can't Believe The Words I Had To Hear'
Lewis said she stopped for gas at the Sunoco station adjacent to Pat's Service Center and Towing in Worcester, where she's been a patron many times before. But on the evening of June 4, around 8:30 p.m., Lewis said she and her three children were subjected to racist slurs and violent behavior.
After alerting the gas station attendant that her car's tank was full and overflowing, Lewis said she asked for reimbursement of the money she was charged for the extra gasoline. She said the attendant became increasingly aggressive and the situation escalated quickly, with the man allegedly calling Lewis and her 13 year-old-daughter "Black c---s!" before repeatedly kicking her car.
Several calls to Pat's Service Center and Towing went unanswered. In 2013, Worcester Magazine reported that the city terminated towing contracts with the company after the former chief of police detailed concerns over alleged criminal behavior.
Lewis said she was shocked and recalled the incident while fighting back tears.
"Hearing him tell me the words that I wasn't welcome there, to hear the words never to come back because I would never be served, to hear the words that I was a Black c--t and then to hear those same words be spoken to a 13-year-old little girl," she said in an interview, "of course I'm angry. I'm frustrated. I can't believe what has taken place. I can't believe the words I had to hear."
Sophia Hall, a supervising attorney with LCR, said what happened next amounts to discrimination on the part of the Worcester police.
"Rather than the Worcester police department recognizing the racial undertones and properly investigating and prosecuting this matter, Ms. Lewis had to be her own advocate and time and time again, the Worcester police department has tried to discourage her from moving forward and having the matter prosecuted," Hall said.
Lewis said she made several attempts to report the incident to the police and press charges, both over the phone and in-person at the station. She said she was discouraged from filing charges against the gas station attendant for what police called nothing more than a verbal altercation.
"I couldn't believe that the people you're supposed to call when a situation takes place or you feel unsafe or in danger are the police, and here I attempted to do a phone call and then I attempted to go down to the police station and still felt like I was completely not helped," Lewis said.
That's when Lewis, who sits on the city's Human Rights Commission, decided to alert the board's director.
A few days later, a detective was at Lewis' home.
"If I didn't have a contact of being able to reach out to someone from the Human Rights Commission board, to make that phone call, I would still be in the position of no help whatsoever," Lewis said.
The Worcester Police Department said in a statement that the incident was investigated as a hate crime but the spokesperson, Katie Shea, did not say when the investigation began.
"During the investigation, both parties gave conflicting statements. After consulting with the District Attorney’s Office a clerk’s hearing was sought on the charges. The next hearing date is on September 11, 2020. The clerk will hear both parties and make a determination on the charges," Shea's statement read.
District Attorney Joseph Early's office referred WBUR to Worcester police for questions.
Hall, the attorney representing Lewis, said neither she nor her client have seen any documentation related to the investigation and was only made aware of any investigation when WBUR informed her of the police statement.
"I'd also be interested in what precisely the "investigation" entailed. I hope that video footage was reviewed and prior similar incidents were also looked into," Hall said in an email. "A pretextual investigation when police believe all they need to do is merely interview two parties, seems light and ineffective."
'Emboldened To Act On The Hate'
The alleged altercation in Worcester is one of several racist incidents reported across the state in the last few weeks, while the nation continues to reckon with its history of systemic racism and police brutality.
In Groveland, police are investigating a report that a white man followed a Black woman in his car and accused her of suspicious behavior.
“Quite frankly, I don’t feel safe right now,” she said.
“I don’t feel safe with you driving around my neighborhood,” he said.
“Is it because I’m Black?” she said.
“That’s good, you’re Black. Congratulations. I have nothing wrong with that,” he said.
After the exchange, the voice of a second woman is heard in the video: “I don’t like the fact that this poor girl is being harassed.”
“I don’t like the fact that she’s in my neighborhood,” the man said.
Officers said the woman had picked up dog food from another house and was driving to her home when she was followed. Police told WBUR a suspect has been interviewed and the event is under investigation.
Peggy Shukur, the interim deputy regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in New England, said while the organization hasn't seen an uptick in people reporting incidents directly to them, the ADL has noted a pattern nationally and in New England of more blatant displays of racism.
"We sometimes have seen during this time period as well more extreme manifestations of hate and bias and racism, as we've seen with nooses hanging in public places," Shukur said, referring to recent racist activity in Yarmouth. "So, people are now, in a sense, emboldened to act on the hate that they're seeing online. Sometimes they do it online and other times they're doing it in person."
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey's office investigates claims of bias-related incidents through its Civil Right Division. While the office has not seen a large increase in reports, in recent weeks there have been several complaints concerning anti-Asian sentiments on social media and more recently several involving racism against Black residents.
In a statement, Healey said these are "incredibly frightening times -- especially for those in our Black, Brown, Asian, LGBTQ and immigrant communities."
"It’s especially important right now, as we fight a pandemic that’s disparately impacting our communities of color and we work to address centuries of systemic racism – that people know their protections under the law and that my office is here for them. We will not stand for bias or discrimination of any kind.”
With reporting from Simón Rios.
This segment aired on July 2, 2020.