The brutal November murder of a Bosnian man in St. Louis has now brought the area's large and quiet immigrant community to the forefront of the city's deep racial tensions.
Zemir Begic, 32, was attacked and killed by a group of four hammer-wielding teens as he drove home from a bar early on November 30. Police said the senseless attack did not seem to be racially or ethnically motivated.
But because Begic was white, and his young assailants were black and Hispanic, some saw the murder as a "black-on-white" attack, fueled by racial tensions in St. Louis that have only been heightened in the aftermath of the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson this summer.
While many in the Bevo Mill neighborhood where Begic was killed felt that he was targeted because he was Bosnian, others said Bosnians in St. Louis — along with the rest of the city's residents — are facing a larger problem: a serious spike in crime in the city.
"One small part of the Bosnian community thinks it was a targeted attack on Bosnians, some of them think it's a targeted attack on white people in general, but the overwhelming part of the community thinks that it's really not related to race or ethnicity at all," said Akif Cogo, who moved to the United States 12 years ago and runs St. Louis Bosnian, an initiative promoting Bosnian heritage in the city.
"It was just a vicious attack by some really young men who need to be held accountable for their actions," he told VICE News.
Cogo and others also pointed to the fact that many uninterested in the plight of the Bosnian community before had suddenly expressed interest in the murder because of their own agendas.
"We had a very vicious murder in May of last year, but nobody was talking about that," Cogo said, referring to the killing of a 19-year-old Bosnian boy at a convenience store in the spring of 2013. "We are not delusional that all of a sudden everyone cares about Bosnians."
Others pointed out that in the battle of narratives that gripped St. Louis in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, some were now embracing Bosnians as "white," but had previously marginalized them as Muslims.
"Hilarious thing about rightwing #JusticeForZemir support is they've been hating on Bosnians since they got to St. Louis," Umar Lee, a Muslim activist and regular Ferguson protester tweeted, citing a social media campaign that went viral following Zemir's murder. "But racism trumps that."
But with tensions running high, some, both within and without the Bosnian community, have seized on the racial dynamics behind Begic's murder.
On Monday, police charged a Bosnian woman who had made up a report about being attacked by three black teens targeting her for her ethnicity.
Seherzada Dzanic, 26, said that teens had pulled a gun on her while she was in her car and gone through her purse, and that they had pulled her out of the car, kicked her, and demanded to know where she was from.
When she replied that she was European, Dzanic told police the teens said, "You're a [expletive] liar. You're Bosnian. I should just kill you now."
But none of that was true, and the woman's account was disputed by surveillance video that shows her getting out of her car, laying on the ground, and waiting for a passerby to come to her rescue. Dzanic admitted that she made up the story because of "emotional issues."
But in St. Louis — a deeply segregated city which the Ferguson protests have polarized even further — the Bosnian community has found itself surrounded by racial tensions its own members, who are mostly white Muslims, fit within oddly.
Despite the fact that police said they have no evidence that the murder of Begic was a hate crime, some in the community believe that's the case. Four minors are in custody for that crime. The oldest one, 17, has been charged with first-degree murder. Police are seeking to charge the others — aged 15 and 16 — as adults.
Officers are also investigating a separate incident over the weekend in which another Bosnian woman said two black men tried to rob her and called her a "[expletive] Bosnian [expletive]," the Dispatch reported.
"It doesn't help the current climate when people use race as the basis to report crime; it further divides our community," St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson said, according to the Post-Dispatch.
Members of both the Bosnian and black communities in particular have tried to turn a tragic moment into an opportunity for dialogue.
"African American religious leaders are reaching out to Bosnian religious leaders, and vice versa," Cogo said, adding that some Bosnians were also making an effort to open up their community more. "I think that will start some interaction in the hope of better understanding between our communities."
"It would be very damaging to the community if this thing divided people further," Antonio French, an African-American alderman in the city, and a regular in the early days of the Ferguson protests, told VICE News.
French, whose wife is Bosnian, acknowledged there have been occasional tensions between the two communities in the past. But today's problem, he said, is crime — across the board.
"You've got some racists who want to drive a wedge between the Bosnian community and black community," he said. "But it's just crime. The Bevo Mill neighborhood is suffering like many neighborhoods, north and south, from increased crime.
"It just so happens that the criminals in this situation were young black kids and that their victims happened to be in this case Bosnians," he added. "But, really, when you look at what happens in St. Louis, it is very unfortunate that these kind of violent acts are not rare."
Some 147 people were killed in St. Louis since the beginning of the year — Begic was reportedly the 136th— and not only homicides but also robberies, carjackings, and gun sales are on the rise.
"It goes across races and while I think it's convenient right now to say that because of Ferguson this is race-directed, there is a larger issue here and the larger issue is safety," Anna Crosslin of the International Institute of St. Louis told VICE News. "That's what the Bosnians are truly concerned about right now.
"They come from a war-torn country where brother turned on brother, where they didn't know who to trust, where walking down the streets was not possible in their communities," she added. "And they now find themselves in a situation where they are afraid because of this inability to feel safe walking down the streets."
Their experience also makes Bosnians particularly wary of the tensions dividing St. Louisans, Crosslin said.
"They know what the consequences are when neighbors turn against neighbors," she said. "They do not wanna do that."
St. Louis, which beats Chicago for the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe, is home to some 70,000 Bosnians. Most arrived in the country as refugees of the Balkans War of the mid-90s.
Some 7,000 of them were sponsored by the International Institute of St. Louis, an immigrant and refugee resettlement center. Crosslin, the institute's president, told VICE News Bosnians had worked hard to uplift their community economically — and that while they were mostly welcome in St. Louis, their success has occasionally led to resentment.
"There is no question that there has been negativity over the years towards the Bosnians, but by individuals, not groups. And by and large it has really focused on economic factors," she said. "Among some there has been competitiveness, that the Bosnians have in fact made it, and there is sometimes resentment of that, or lack of understanding of that."
That was especially the case among other disadvantaged communities in St. Louis, including some African American ones.
"There was the feeling that the Bosnians were getting more help than other low income individuals in the community, rumors like, refugees get $75,000 to start over in the US, they get interest-free loans to start businesses," she said. "None of that is true, but it's the urban myth about refugees and immigrants."
For the most part, Bosnians in St. Louis have followed the protests raging in Ferguson and other parts of the city from a distance.
"We adhere to the law and we think there is a process and a law that needs to be respected and followed," Cogo said. "There was a lot of conversation in our community about what is going on, but we have faith in the justice system, in the US, in Missouri, in our city, and based on that a lot of people were waiting to see what the grand jury would decide in that case."
When Begic was murdered, local Bosnians took a cue from Ferguson protesters, holding a vigil and marching in the streets with "no justice, no peace" signs.
But when police showed up ready to disperse another demonstration, they were met with an unexpected demand — Bosnians wanted more police, not less, and more patrols to deal with the rising crime in their neighborhood.
"Safety has been deteriorating over the last few years and there's definitely concern outside the Bosnian community as well," Cogo said.
But while keeping to the sidelines of the battle going on in the city, Cogo said many Bosnians felt naturally sympathetic towards the struggles of minorities and oppressed communities — and that the sudden militarization of St. Louis over the last few months touched a deep wound.
"We never have peace of mind whenever there's weapons involved or whenever there's armored vehicles involved," he said. "Of course there's some sort of recollection and memory. In a sense there was never a true comparison because we are convinced that what we went through is a lot worse, it doesn't really compare.
"But we truly do understand people that are going through all sorts of hardships and discrimination," he added. "Bosnians are a prime example of an ethnic group that understands all other minorities and all people going through any sense of hardship. It's crystal clear to us, so we're here not as a dividing factor in St. Louis but as a unifying factor for everyone, for all our neighbors, regardless of religion and race."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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