Patchogue was like many small communities dotting the farm country of Suffolk County, New York.
The minority part of the community was small but growing. Immigrants were a special target and had good reason to stay in their own area. They had learned from bitter experience not to report incidents of harassment to local police.
Those in uniform often reacted with hostility against immigrants. Immigrants were outsiders, enemies of the community they were sworn to protect. Even acts of anti-immigrant violence were best kept from authorities.
Police hostility was representative of the white community at large. Politicians were elected on anti-immigrant platforms.
At age 17, Jeffrey Conroy had not been known as an anti-immigrant kid. His sister from his father’s previous marriage was half Puerto Rican. But he fell in with a group that took community attitudes to a higher level. He hung out with anti-immigrant buddies. He had a swastika tattooed on his thigh.
He and his friends had a hobby. They called it “beaner hopping.” They went on late night hunts for immigrants who had not obeyed the unofficial rule to detour around the community. When they found and chased down a victim, the fun would begin: a beating was in order.
On the night before election day 2008, as America prepared to put into office its first black President, Marcelo Lucero finished a hard day working in a dry cleaning store and walked toward home with a friend. Jeffrey Conroy and his gang were on the hunt that night. They spotted Lucero and his friend.
There was a lot they didn’t know about Marcelo Lucero. They would not have cared about most of it. This was their third hunt in a week and all they cared about was the hatred and the fun.
They did not know that he was from Ecuador or that he was 37 or that he had lived in the United States for almost as long as members of the group had been alive. They did not know he worked long hours in the dry cleaning store and sent most of his wages home to his aging mother. They did not know that his mother, back in Ecuador, was recovering from cancer.
They also didn’t know Marcelo Lucero was done with running. He and his friend took off their belts and used them to fend off the gang. One of the boys managed to get through. He punched the immigrant in the face. The two victims chased off the gang. It was an unusual turn-about. During the melee, one of the young bullies had been hit in the head by Marcelo Lucero’s belt.
Jeffrey Conroy was furious. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Immigrants were supposed to run, be chased, be caught, and be beaten. They were not supposed to stand and fight. They were definitely not supposed to hit Jeffrey Conroy.
The enraged teenager unfolded a knife and stabbed Marcelo Lucero until he was dead. For the first time, the hunt had ended with an actual kill.
It took a couple of years for the murder case to get to court. Marcelo Lucero was attacked and killed in 2008. In 2010, six of Jeffrey Conroy’s hunting buddies were convicted and sent to prison for anywhere from 6 to 7 years. Conroy, the actual murderer, was sentenced to 25 years.
The killing and trial divided the little community. Traditional antagonism toward immigrants has been met by a small but growing sentiment that things went too far. There had been other incidents in surrounding communities: the homes of immigrant families had been fire bombed, day workers had been attacked on the street, two immigrants were kidnapped, beaten, and released.
But the murder of Marcelo Lucero, by a gang of teenaged nighttime raiders on the prowl for immigrants to beat up, was somehow singularly shocking to the community.
The neighborhood is still divided. Politicians are still elected in anti-immigrant campaigns. Immigrants walking to and from work are still harassed. Actual violence still happens, although the frequency has lessened. A Department of Justice investigation has prompted a less hostile police presence.
In 2011, a year after the trial, three years after the midnight murder, the killer’s father appeared at a small play based on the incident. He expressed to the audience his sorrow. He also offered a plea.
I’m sorry for what’s happened, but I feel that the problems of a nation fell on a 17-year-old child.
In 2015, a ceremony marked the anniversary of the killing. Local papers carried a photo of a little girl in prayer. The picture went to the larger New York City area when it appeared in the New York Times.
The violence and death happened in the small parking area of a commuter train station of the Long Island Rail Road. The station has become a sort of marking place for periodic remembrances. The parking lot at which Marcelo Lucero was murdered is at the end of a little street called Railroad Avenue.
From the parking lot, you can look up the street and see the entrance to the Emporium Hall. The photo of the little girl in prayer and the story of the ambush and murder caught the attention of much of New York – – including the Trump campaign.
They specifically chose the Emporium for a rally, within sight of the killing.
Donald Trump himself appeared. He had been holding rallies in communities around Suffolk County known for anti immigrant activism. By the New York primary, he had incorporated into his stump speech a poem based on a pop song that had briefly become a hit in the mid-1970s.
The song was about a woman befriending and helping a selfish, uncaring man. Al Wilson sang the musical metaphor in which the untrustworthy man is represented as a poisonous snake. A pretty woman finds the half-frozen snake about to die, and cares for him until he is healthy once more.
Now she stroked his pretty skin
and then she kissed and held him tight.
But instead of saying thanks,
that snake gave her a vicious bite.
The Snake by Al Green
As the woman is bitten by the snake, she asks why he has returned her kindness with poisonous death. Mr. Trump took to reading the answer, applying the lesson to refugees fleeing certain death in Syria, some seeking safety in the United States.
“Oh shut up, silly woman,”
said the reptile with a grin.
“You damn well knew I was a snake
before you took me in.”
Believe me folks, believe me. Believe me.
Now, we all understand. Our country has to start getting tough.
Tough. Very, very tough.
In reality, refugees fleeing from war torn areas are vetted, investigated over a period lasting about 2 years, before being given sanctuary in the United States. Although tourists from abroad do account for a number of attacks, refugees have been responsible for no attacks at all. None.
In one community rally after another, Mr. Trump read his adopted poem about immigrants in Suffolk County as poisonous snakes.
But when he got to the Emporium, the rental hall a few hundred feet down Railroad Avenue from the killing of Marcelo Lucero, he had a special message. He put aside the little poem cautioning his audience about the snakes that were immigrants. He left his metaphors for surrounding communities. He had a more direct message for this specific neighborhood.
So, at the Emporium, within sight of the murder, near the periodic plays and yearly ceremonies and perpetual mourning for the life that had been taken by a roaming band of tough guys, Mr. Trump spoke directly to neighborhood tough guys about jobs being taken from them by those who were not even Americans.
I can’t believe. I know some of the guys in this room. they’re so tough. Some of the tough guys I know.
I can’t believe you guys would allow that to happen. What the hell, are you getting soft?
They’re getting soft on me, I don’t believe this. Right?
They know what I’m talking about.
– Donald Trump, April 14, 2016
In the days following his message to neighborhood tough guys, the tough guys who would know what he was talking about, within sight of the murder of an immigrant by neighborhood tough guys, Donald Trump went back to reading his little poem to other rallies in surrounding communities.
You damn well knew I was a snake
before you took me in.
The poem about the poisonous snake and the venom it carries.
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