After racially motivated beating in Brainerd, a community reflectsby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Brainerd, Minn. — Nearly two weeks after two men brutally attacked him outside a downtown Brainerd Bar, Willie Navy's thoughts of Brainerd as "a good town, a good, quiet town," are changed.
Navy, 53, is recovering at home from fairly severe injuries. He was repeatedly kicked in the head during an early morning attack on Feb. 6, after he left Yesterday's Gone. Doctors told him he may need several surgeries to repair fractures around his left eye socket. He may never fully regain vision in that eye.
Navy, who is black, still has nightmares about the assault. Two white men -- strangers to him -- confronted him with racial slurs as he left the bar.
"I walked out the door and the dude said, 'what are you doing here, nigger?' And I just asked him what was he talking about? And I got caught from behind," Navy said. "That's the only thing I remember. I woke up and was in the back of an ambulance, bleeding all over the place ... I could have been dead."
Other people in Brainerd also are trying to make sense of the brutal beating, which authorities believe was racially motivated. Many were sickened by the incident, and some see it as an opportunity to re-examine how people view race in northern Minnesota.
Authorities have charged two men in the attack. Lucas Eastwood, 27, of Backus, and Travis Campbell, 29, of Pequot Lakes, face multiple assault charges, including one labeled a crime "motivated by bias." A conviction on that charge could subject them to tougher sentencing because of the racial nature of the attack.
A search of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's online database shows Campbell has prior fifth-degree assault convictions in Minnesota -- one in 2002 and another in 2004. Eastwood has no criminal history in the state.
Willie Navy is no stranger to racism, which he experienced as a boy in Arkansas, and when he moved to Minneapolis in 1973, at 13. He moved to Brainerd just last June to be closer to his brother. He felt racism in Brainerd, too, but Navy says he's been treated mostly with respect.
"I know there's prejudice everywhere, but I never thought it would go that far," Navy said. "I've been here over a year, so I never had no problem like that. The n-word you might hear now and then or people might look at you like, 'where you come from.' You know, stuff like that. But never this tragedy."
The attack upset Brainerd resident Justin Doerfler, a Minnesota National Guard soldier who just finished a tour of Afghanistan. When Doerfler heard about the beating, he used Facebook to organize an anti-racism rally at a court hearing this week for the two alleged attackers. The rally drew dozens of people from Brainerd and surrounding communities.
Doerfler comes from a racially mixed family. He's heard people in Brainerd use racially charged derogatory language before, but he said he's still surprised by the viciousness of the attack.
"The people of Brainerd, the people of Crow Wing County aren't this way," Doerfler said. "There's no room for that. There's no reason for it. It really puts up a barrier that needs to get knocked back down."
The attack on Willie Navy has received steady coverage in the local newspaper. It's also been the focus of discussion in places of worship, and a hot topic at the Coco Moon Coffee Bar in downtown Brainerd, just a few blocks from where the attack occurred.
Melissa Stephens, a customer at the coffee shop, said she was shocked that something so ugly could happen in the place she calls home.
"I was disgusted. I was disappointed. I was upset," Stephens said. "I moved here from a big city, from Denver. And I felt like a story like that would be more likely in a big city, and here I never expected that."
The incident is pulling the Brainerd community together, said Arlene Jones, a former member of the Crow Wing County Human Rights Commission. But she said people in northern Minnesota shouldn't pretend that racism doesn't exist.
"I absolutely believe that there are people in this community who could tell you that, yes, it is a problem," Jones said. "Although it may be hidden and shadowed, I'm sure it happens. And an incident that is as horrible as what just happened, I hope brings that to light more."
The two men accused of the assault remain in custody in the Crow Wing County Jail. Their next court appearance is set for April 12.
- All Things Considered, 02/18/2011, 4:54 p.m.