Did Confederate flag magnet prompt Salt Lake assault?
SALT LAKE CITY — The video clearly shows Kelly Leeper's friend being sucker punched and knocked to the ground.
But whether the assault rises to the level of being a hate crime is something police are still investigating. As of Wednesday, Salt Lake Police Sgt. Robin Heiden said the incident did not.
"After speaking with some of the witnesses, we are leaning toward more of a simple assault than a hate crime. But that could always change as we move foward with the investigation," she said.
The question is whether the fight was motivated by a Confederate flag magnet that was attached to a pickup truck. If it was, does that, along with slurs that were allegedly uttered, constitute a potential hate crime?
The confrontation was recorded on a cellphone and later posted to YouTube. It appears to show Leeper and his friend, who are white, being attacked by approximately seven black men.
Leeper and his friend, who was not identified, came to Salt Lake City from Wyoming for a Garth Brooks concert. About 2 a.m. on Nov. 1 in the parking lot of the Red Lion, 161 W. 600 South, Leeper and his friends were about to leave to drive back to Wyoming when Leeper's friend looked out his hotel window from the eighth floor and said he saw several men around his pickup truck.
The video began recording shortly after the friend went to the parking lot to confront the group, Leeper said.
At first, one of the men is heard saying, "Nobody's touching your truck." Then another man says he's mad because there's a Confederate flag on the vehicle.
Leeper's friend walks around his truck, possibly to inspect it. Gay slurs are heard being yelled at him as another man tells him to move his truck.
The video then shows the friend standing at the back of his truck, telling one of the main agitators, "Why don't you move over that way" while pointing away from the truck.
Without warning, the video shows the man he told to move hit him in the head with his right hand. The punch knocks the man to the ground. Leeper, who had been watching off to the side with his hands in his pockets, approaches the group. While his hands are still in his pockets, another man takes a swing at him, the video shows. Leeper stays on his feet but finds himself surrounded by six or seven men who knock him to his knees. He said at that point he was repeatedly kicked.
"There's not really much thought that can go through a person's mind. Honestly, all I was thinking was, 'Don't get knocked out,'" he said.
When the group heard that the police were on their way, Leeper said, they got into different vehicles and drove off. He said he and his friend suffered cuts, scratches, bruises and a possible broken nose but did not go to the hospital.
As of Wednesday, police had not found the men responsible for the attack. Leeper believes that once they are caught, they should be charged with a hate crime.
"If the situation was reversed, and if there was a large group of white males who confronted two black gentlemen who, hypothetically, had a sticker on their vehicle that said, 'Black lives matter,' it would be dubbed a hate crime in a heartbeat. So where's the double standard there?" he asked.
The Confederate flag has been a topic of national debate, particularly after a white gunman in June allegedly killed nine African-Americans in what police say was a racially motived shooting at a South Carolina church. Gov. Nikki Haley subsequently signed a bill removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.
Those opposed to the flag say it's a symbol of hate and racism. Leeper disagrees.
"We're not racists," he said. "I don't know how people can reach that conclusion that we were trying to be racist or start a confrontation."
Leeper said he was with a group of four people that night, including one friend who is black.
"Everybody's interpretation of what that flag means is different. And obviously there's a gap there on what the black community believes the flag stands for and what I or anybody else believes what the flag stands for. I guess that's the beauty of the First Amendment is that it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks, you have the right to do, or believe or speak or say or display any type of thing you want," he said. "There was four of us total, and one of them was African-American. I don't want to be labeled as a racist."
Leeper said to him, the Confederate flag represents standing up for your rights.
"It has nothing to do, in my opinion, with the color of anybody's skin," he said.
Utah law states that a hate crime occurs when there is an assault or a crime committed against another person that is motivated by race, religion or sexual orientation, Salt Lake police detective Richard Chipping said.
Police said anger over the Confederate flag alone may not constitute a hate crime. But the totality of the confrontation will be looked at.
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