Race's role in Avalon woman's attack heats speculation on Internet

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The head of Pittsburgh's NAACP chapter wonders whether race was the motive for an attack on a white woman by four black teenage girls in the North Side.

“The same thing might have happened if it had been me who got out of that car,” said Constance Parker.

Pittsburgh police charged the teens with ethnic intimidation, robbery and conspiracy in the incident, which has generated hundreds of racially charged comments — some of them referencing the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida — on social media and coverage by news outlets from New York to London.

“We have a bad climate of racial tension in Pittsburgh and across Pennsylvania. Much of it goes unspoken, but there is an undercurrent of hate that rears its head after incidents like this occur,” Parker said.

Police said the four teens — ages 14 to 16 — threw a soda bottle at a passing car at Itin and Concord streets about 6:40 p.m. Sunday. The teens attacked the driver, Ginger Slepski, 32, of Avalon, when she got out and complained.

“As they were beating on her, pulling her hair and kicking her in the face and head, they repeatedly referenced the woman's race,” Pittsburgh police Cmdr. RaShall Brackney said.

“I do feel like it was very racially motivated, and I grew up in the neighborhood,” Slepski told Tribune-Review news partner WPXI-TV, describing the attack as “animalistic.”

The suspects — whose names have not been released because they are juveniles — could not be reached.

Brackney said witnesses stopped the attack, after which Slepski drove off. Slepski, an electrician with two children, was treated in Allegheny General Hospital for head, shoulder and other injuries. Her purse was stolen, police said.

Police arrested the teens on nearby Vista Street. Lt. Kevin Kraus said the teens continued using racial slurs as police interviewed them.

The teens are from New Kensington, the East End and the Churchill area. Their cases will be prosecuted in juvenile court.

Prosecutors could have a hard time convicting the teens on charges of ethnic intimidation, a legal expert said.

“That's not an easy thing to prove,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. “They will have to show that the attack was motivated by the victim's race or ethnicity, that they targeted the victim on that basis.”

Brackney said there are “no indications that these young women decided to initially engage this victim because of her race, but as things escalated and started to unfold, it appeared to be racially motivated.”

Pittsburgh police records show 15 arrests made this year included charges of ethnic intimidation.

“We answer over 600,000 911 calls a year, so that number is relatively low,” Brackney said.

“At the same time, there is a perception that we're in a post-racial era, so I think it shocks the conscience that may be different than what we're hoping for,” Brackney said. “And due to the age of the actors, it makes it more difficult to comprehend the violence and viciousness of this attack.”

Melissa Sickmund, director of the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice, said the sex of the attackers also might shock some.

“When girls do things like this, it's shocking because we don't want to think of girls getting in trouble this way. It runs counter to our stereotypes. But about a quarter of all serious assaults by juveniles are committed by girls,” Sickmund said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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