Tulsa, Chapel Hill Families Seethe When Hate Crimes Labeled As Neighbor Disputes

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When Mohammad Abu-Salha learned that an Oklahoma man had been arrested on suspicion of fatally shooting his Lebanese-American neighbor last week, he felt a sickening sense of déjà vu.

In February 2015, Abu-Salha’s daughters, Yusor and Razan, and his son-in-law, Deah Barakat, were fatally shot, execution-style, in their apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Prosecutors say neighbor Craig Stephen Hicks confessed to the triple homicide.

“We felt it’s a copycat case,” Mohammad Abu-Salha told TPM in a Wednesday phone interview.

Both the Jabaras and Abu-Salhas say their slain loved ones lived in fear of volatile, violent neighbors who harassed them over their ethnicity.

“It’s the same story in detail: the angry neighbor, who is racist, bigoted, mad, picking fights for nothing, and then planning his murder on a day when there was no issue or problem or conflict with the family,” Abu-Salha said of the Aug. 12 shooting of Khalid Jabara in Tulsa.

Stanley Vernon Majors, who already faced felony charges in a September 2015 hit-and-run attack on Jabara’s mother, Haifa, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of first-degree murder and malicious intimidation.

“Khalid Jabara is just like our children,” Abu-Salha said. “He is an innocent victim.”

The cases are not identical, however. Haifa Jabara had taken out a protective order against Majors, which he twice violated, and Tulsa police were aware of the stream of ethnic harassment he allegedly directed towards the family. Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, who were married, tried to accommodate Hicks by keeping their concerns to themselves and sharing a map with visitors showing exactly where they could park at their apartment complex in order to avoid provoking his ire.

But both families lived under a cloud of fear, waiting for something to happen.

“Despite the overwhelming evidence we marshalled of a palpable threat of danger and hate facing us on a daily basis, the existing legal mechanisms proved insufficient to protect our beloved Khalid and our mother,” the Jabara family said in a statement, calling Khalid’s murder “preventable.”

Abu-Salha said that he felt his stomach sink upon hearing reports that Barakat had been involved in a shooting in Chapel Hill.

“I knew immediately that my children were dead and that it was Hicks,” he told TPM, saying he had learned from his daughter that Hicks often came to her apartment while armed to yell at her and her husband for perceived slights.

“He told her once that he hated how she looked and how she dressed, and hated who she was,” Abu-Salha said of Yusor, who wore a hijab.

Both families feel that the authorities and the media have devoted insufficient attention to the racial bias they allege motivated their relatives’ killings.

North Carolina and Oklahoma have relatively weak hate crime statutes. In the Tar Heel state, “ethnic intimidation” is a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine, although the penalty may be raised to a felony. In the Sooner State, “malicious harassment,” with which Majors was charged, qualifies as a misdemeanor punishable on first offense by a year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Authorities say Majors openly expressed his loathing for the ethnic background of his Lebanese Christian neighbors, calling them “filthy Lebanese” who “throw gay people off the roof” in conversations with police, so it was easier for Tulsa County prosecutors to secure a hate crime charge.

In Chapel Hill, Abu-Salha said that Hicks did not harass Barakat when he lived there with a male friend. Rather, Abu-Salha said Hicks began targeting the couple once his daughter, who wore clothing that reflected her Muslim faith, started coming by the apartment. Hicks also frequently posted Facebook diatribes disparaging religion.

Because of the limitations of North Carolina law, the families of the Chapel Hill victims are pinning their hopes on federal hate crime statutes, which require proof that the defendant explicitly sought out a victim because of racial animus or another distinguishable characteristic. The FBI has not yet determined if it will pursue hate crime charges against Hicks.

Abu-Salha believes that these laws diminish the raw reality of racism and ethnic bias in the United States.

“These laws in my mind are mocking to the victim, when you kill a person and say it’s ethnic harassment or intimidation,” he said.

Regardless of the charges brought against the suspects, both families want to tell the public that the loved ones they lost never provoked their alleged aggressors.

Jabara family friend Rebecca Abou-Chedid, who is acting as their spokeswoman, told TPM she believes it’s inaccurate to characterize the conflict between Majors and the Jabaras as a “neighborly dispute,” given the years of alleged harassment from Majors that she says was one-sided.

In North Carolina, Abu-Salha says he’s still waiting for an apology from law enforcement for issuing a statement on the night of the shooting alleging that Hicks had been motivated by a “parking dispute”—before officially notifying the families of the three victims, he said. None of the victims’ cars were parked in the shared spots that Hicks obsessed over on the night of the shooting.

The Durham District Attorney did not return TPM’s request for comment by press time.

Both Majors’ and Hicks’ cases are tentatively set to go to trial in 2017. In the meantime, the grieving families wait.

“That is our life now,” Abu-Salha said. “It is all a nightmare but we accept our destiny and our fate. We live with dignity, with faith, and a lot of pain.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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