Dozens of members of the St. Louis Bosnian community took to the streets of the city's "Little Bosnia" neighborhood after teens wielding hammers attacked and killed a Bosnian man Sunday.
Zemir Begic, 32, died in the hospital after he was assaulted by at least three teens while leaving a bar early Sunday morning. Police have arrested three suspects in the assault — all minors — and have repeatedly said the attack did not appear to be racially or ethnically motivated.
But many people in the large St. Louis Bosnian community feel that Begic was attacked because of his nationality. They have demanded more officers and more aggressive patrols in their neighborhoods, where they say they no longer feel safe.
"I don't know why this is happening to Bosnians," Suad Nuranjkovic, 49, who was leaving the bar with Begic at the time of the attack and escaped by hiding in a parking lot, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "We could go around and shoot people, too, but we just want peace."
The attack comes at a time of heightened racial tensions in the St. Louis area. The protests that flared up in the aftermath of the August killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer reignited last week after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer responsible for Brown's death.
On social media, in particular, where members of the Bosnian community raised their outrage at the attack under the hashtag #JusticeforZemir, some critics of the Ferguson protests called the murder a "hate crime," and attempted to blame the Bosnian man's murder on the unrest. Some claimed Zemir was killed "because he was white" — a position some Ferguson protesters quickly condemned as both hypocritical and baseless.
Sad at people who reject justice for Mike Brown but demand it for Zemir Begic. Both victims deserve to have their killers put on trial.
— Joshua Foust (@joshuafoust)December 1, 2014
On Sunday evening, about 150 people, mostly Bosnians, gathered for a vigil in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of St. Louis — where many of the city's 60,000 Bosnians settled after fleeing the Balkans War of the 1990s.
Taking cues from Ferguson protesters, they blocked the streets, demanding justice. Some even carried the "no justice, no peace" signs that became an icon of the Ferguson protests.
"We're going to have a little bit of fun blocking our own traffic," Adnan Esmerovic, 27, a local resident, told the Washington Post. "In Ferguson, they want to make a protest about nothing and yet that attracted attention across the nation… We're just trying to keep more police down here because of these little thugs."
Responding to the protesters, St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson said "there is no indication that the gentleman last night was targeted because he was Bosnian."
"The whole idea of standing out in the street is to get our attention," Dotson added, asking people to stay off the streets. "You got my attention. You absolutely did."
Dotson told protesters asking for greater police presence in the neighborhood that he would send additional patrols, but that he couldn't accomplish that "overnight."
"But you can get 1,000 cops in Ferguson," Esmerovic said, according to the Post. "Well, we're going to protest to keep them here."
With Zemir, the police immediately arrested two of the alleged murderers. With Brown, they helped the killer hide. That's racism.
— Joshua Foust (@joshuafoust)December 1, 2014
The three teens in custody so far — all aged 15 to 17 — reportedly approached another Bosnian man about an hour earlier that evening, but he was able to fight them off, suffering minor injuries. Police said that the three boys — two African-American and one Hispanic — had nothing in their criminal background that could suggest they would carry out such an attack. Prosecutors have filed first-degree murder charges against 17-year-old Robert Mitchell, as well as an additional charge of armed criminal action.
St. Louis mayor Francis Slay also rushed to reassure the Bosnian community that the attack did not appear to be targeted or ethnically motivated, but called it instead "random and senseless," and said the teens to be prosecuted as adults.
Meanwhile, a fundraising campaign for funeral arrangements for Begic raised more than $26,000.
"He loved America," Denisa Begic, the man's sister, told reporters. "We come from Bosnia because we were getting killed and our homes and families were getting destroyed. Never in my life did I think he would get murdered."
She also said that her brother would not have judged the three teens that assaulted him based on their race.
"He loved everybody," she said. "I don't know what to think of it. It's so wrong what they did. They didn't just hurt Zemir's family. They also hurt their own family because I'm pretty sure their moms will never see them again."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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