When many of us think about Cape Girardeau, we think of it as a bustling little city. We love the charm of the place, the downtown buildings overlooking the river. And the bridge that connects us to the eastern half of the U.S. We think about our weekends, our churches and where to eat supper. Sometimes we like to second-guess the city council.
We think about our friends and our families and the awful steamy weather that we have to endure. We think about our children and their futures, and how to provide for them.
So rarely do we ever have to think about hatred and violence.
But there's been no choice, really, over the last couple of weeks but to reflect on these topics following the story of the beating of Jeana Marie Terry.
Jeana Marie Terry is gay. She lives on a working- class block on the fringe of the rough side of town with her partner.
Her neighbors include many hardworking people, and a trio of college boys, an older lady or two, all of whom have enjoyed a quiet street for quite some time, until last winter, when a new family moved onto the block.
Families now forbid their children from going outside. Some are, for the first time, keeping loaded guns for protection. One woman refused to go home and spend the night in her house when her husband was away.
The problems came to a head on July 24 when Terry was beaten to a pulp. A photo shared with the media shows her right eye was swollen shut. She missed a couple of weeks of work, and still suffers from vertigo and other complications. She doesn't sleep well. She is not the same person.
The victim in this case says she and her partner had been enduring slurs for quite some time before the incident that put her in the hospital. On the day of the attack, the victim says she confronted the suspects about their language. Later, according to a probable-cause statement, a 16-year-old girl returned, came to the door uninvited and when Terry opened the door, she pulled her outside and proceeded to beat her. According to the statement, the suspect punched her several times, while other juveniles -- including two of the girl's younger siblings -- also began kicking her. Terry said she never threw a punch, only tried to protect herself. While the attack was going on, her partner said, the girl was shouting slurs at the victim.
The girl has since turned 17, and has been certified as an adult by the court. Her name is Mercedes Ayers. She is in the Cape Girardeau County Jail in lieu of a $10,000 bond. One of her siblings, just 11, was also apprehended and sent to juvenile authorities after his alleged involvement in the attack. Days later, the 11-year-old was apprehended again for allegedly pulling a gun and robbing someone. Eleven years old. Wielding a gun.
Ayers has been charged with a Class B felony of robbery and a Class D felony of third-degree assault -- hate crime.
Ayers' family has come to the girl's defense, saying this wasn't about hate; that Mercedes Ayers has a gay aunt and a gay friend, and that she does not hate gays. Relatives have claimed that the incident was initiated by Terry and her partner.
The rest of the neighborhood is telling a different story.
Any rational person understands that the violence, regardless of intent, shown in this altercation is disturbing and completely unacceptable in our society. If the intent was indeed done to prove a point to a gay person, it is even more despicable. Never should any minority fear for his or her personal safety simply because he or she is different from the majority.
The point that could be missed in this entire episode is that there was hate on display here, regardless of whether the suspects dislike gay individuals. There was anger on display here, illogical hatred, displaced rage, directed at an individual.
The neighbors on the 600 block of South Park Avenue say they were seeing the anger before it was shown in a physical act of violence.
Now that the violence has happened, and become so very public, the neighborhood folks are scared even more. They fear retaliation if they speak up about the problems in the neighborhood. Terry is horrified that friends of the suspects will return for more terror. What a heartbreaking way to live.
We feel so much sadness for the victim. Jeane Marie Terry did not deserve to be beaten. We hope she recovers physically, mentally and emotionally from this nightmare.
We feel sadness for the suspects, too. What upbringing produces children who express themselves with guns and fists? From where does the hate and violence originate?
As we think about this act of violence, we think about our own upbringings. Most of us will tend to think about friends and family who supported us, about how we handled our own struggles, our own anger. And we must conclude that something has gone horribly wrong in the lives of these children, who have imposed such fear upon their neighbors. We wonder what influence, or lack thereof, has caused this type of behavior.
Let's be mindful of the causes and consequences of violence.
The consequences are broken bones and battered spirits. The results are fear and anger. Our victims of violence need our community's support. Please take a stand against hate speech.
The causes of violence are more complicated. But there are many, many ways to be involved in this community, to try to make it a better place for those in bad situations. Be a mentor. Volunteer to read to young students. Consider what you can do to expose hate to hope. Call the United Way and ask how you can help. Children are not born felons. Give them a reason to consider taking a good path.
We wish God speed to the courts and our criminal justice system that has to deal with the situation on Park Avenue. Whether guilty or not, whether hate crime or not, there is no easy solution to the problem on the 600 block. A short street. But a long road ahead.
We pray for justice, fairness and peace to everyone involved.