It wasn’t the first time he had been harassed because of his ethnicity or sexual orientation, but Sunday morning was the most frightening incident Jose Emmanuel Vega has experienced.
“I just ignore them and go about my day,” Vega said. “Usually they leave me alone, but it’s sad that this time I tried to ignore it, and I guess because I ignored him, he got more angry.”
Vega, who is gay and Latino, was in line at a Walgreens near 15th Street and Lewis Avenue on Sunday morning when a man said Vega cut in front of him in line.
Vega apologized and told the man he could have his spot back. He thought that was the end of the interaction, but as Vega was leaving the store, he found the man waiting for him in the parking lot.
The man started yelling racial and homophobic slurs at him, and Vega tried to ignore the man in hopes it would diffuse the situation. However, the harassment continued as Vega walked to his car, he said.
As Vega was backing his car out of its parking space, the man kicked off his driver’s side mirror, he said. Vega began recording the incident on his cellphone, and the man opened his car door.
“At this point my heart is beating quickly because he’s trying to get in my car,” Vega said. “As he opens the door, I push the door and jump out and he throws a punch at my back and my arm.”
Vega continued to try to record the man as he threw several punches, he said. Vega tried to capture the man’s license plate, but the man jumped on the back of his car in an attempt to cover the tag number. Then, the man told a woman in the driver’s seat of the car to drive away.
Vega, 23, is the program director for Oklahomans For Equality (OkEq). He was wearing an OkEq T-shirt with a rainbow on it and the words “The Revolution Continues.”
Vega said he thinks the shirt is partially why he was targeted.
“I got assaulted because of my skin color, which I can’t change, and I got assaulted because of the shirt I was wearing,” he said.
Tulsa’s population is 14.9 percent Hispanic, according to statistics on the city’s website.
Vega said he’s glad the assailant called him racial slurs so the assault could be classified as a hate crime, which would elevate the charges.
“It’s sad that in the state of Oklahoma only half of who I identify is protected because he called me a f—— Mexican and harassed me because of my heritage,” he said.
Oklahoma statutes do not address hate crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Instead, they cover crimes committed “because of that person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin or disability,” the law states.
In 2014, 5,462 hate crimes were committed in the U.S., according to FBI statistics. Of those, 47 percent were racially motivated, 11.9 were involved ethnicity and 18.6 percent were against sexual orientation.
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, said he has seen incidents in which people targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity were not be able to pursue hate crime charges against the perpetrator because of state laws.
“I think that one thing we’re always concerned about is making sure someone is charged with the crime at hand,” he said. “And I think that’s part of the conversation that’s missing, is a hate crime charge or bias crime charge; it’s an elevation.”
But the biggest concern is making sure law enforcement actively pursue cases and doesn’t ignore them because of the fact that the victim is a member of a minority, Stevenson said.
“We worked with police departments across the state, and by-in-large they have been very active,” Stevenson said. “While there isn’t specific hate crime legislation on the books, most police departments we have worked with have been very respectful and made sure they’ve looked into each of these events that we’ve been a part of.”
Vega said he wishes witnesses would have stayed on the scene, but they left before officers arrived.
Tulsa Police spokesman Leland Ashley said the case will be assigned to an investigator, who will decide how to go forward with it.
Those with information can call Crime Stoppers at 918-596-2677 or submit tips online.