PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Barrington man charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct for a property line dispute with his neighbor could get a harsher sentence if convicted after Attorney General Peter F. Neronha decided his actions were motivated by animus toward the victim’s racial identity.
Barrington police had charged Richard Gordon, 71, of Rumstick Drive, after he got into a fight Aug. 3 with his neighbor, Bahram Pahlavi, over the placement of a property marker by a surveyor hired by Pahlavi.
A Facebook video posted by Pahlavi’s wife, Iman Ali Pahlavi, shows a man cursing and using a racial slur.
(Warning: In the video, vulgar language and a racial slur can be clearly heard.)
In the Facebook post, Pahlavi said she and her husband have been subjected to “microaggressions” since moving to Rumstick Drive three years ago, with neighbors walking through their yard and parking in their driveway. She said her husband was replacing the property marker, which had been pulled up, when “one of my neighbors jumped my husband calling him the N word.”
Gordon could not be reached for comment.
Hours after the attorney general’s office announced its decision, Black Lives Matter Rhode Island held a small rally Tuesday afternoon on the narrow street between the Gordon house and the Pahlavi house to draw attention to a case that they said should have received the enhanced sentencing notice immediately.
“I do understand there’s a process, and you can’t put the cart before the horse, but in this case, it’s clear,” said Black Lives Matter organizer Mark Fisher. “In an obvious case such as this, where racist slurs are being spewed and a crime is committed in the process, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. A hate crime is a hate crime.”
Neither family was home during the rally, which drew about 10 people, along with media, police officers, the town manager, and at least one town council member.
In his order, Neronha said that his office’s investigation led them to conclude that Gordon “intentionally selected” Pahlavi and his property because of Gordon’s “hatred or animus toward the actual or perceived religion, color, race, national origin, or ancestry” of Pahlavi.
Rhode Island does not have a hate crimes law, but under the Hate Crimes Sentencing Act, prosecutors can notify the judge that they intend to ask for a more severe sentence based on what they believe is a defendant’s motivation in committing an alleged crime.
In her Facebook post, Imam Pahlavi wrote that Gordon “filed a false police report accusing my husband of attacking him.” But she said that, in the video, her husband can be heard saying “get off, get off” and that’s “assault.”
“I shudder to think what would have happened if we did not have the video,” Pahlavi wrote. “Privilege is real.”
In a statement, Barrington Police Chief Dino DeCrescenzo said officers responded to a 911 call about the dispute, and firefighters treated Gordon for an injury he received in the altercation. The video shows him with blood on his left arm.
DeCrescenzo said the officers heard conflicting stories about the dispute, and at first, couldn’t determine how the assault happened and who was the aggressor.
But the investigation continued throughout last week, and the police said they eventually obtained several videos that helped to determine the aggressor. The police obtained an arrest warrant for Gordon on Thursday and arrested him on Friday. Gordon entered a not guilty plea in District Court. There is a pretrial conference Sept. 11.
Barrington is a suburb of some 16,000 people, and 94 percent of the population is white, according to US Census Bureau figures.
In a joint statement, Barrington Town Council President Michael Carroll and Town Manager James J. Cunha said the town is “deeply troubled by the racial overtones” of the altercation on Rumstick Drive.
“This type of behavior is abhorrent and should not be tolerated anywhere,” they said. “It does not reflect who we are as a community, and it is not who we aspired to be.”
When the Pahlavis, a family of four, moved into their waterfront home in exclusive Rumstick Point three years ago, they received a cool reception from neighbors, according to family friend Katherine Quinn.
The Pahlavis, who are Middle Eastern, are the only family of color in the predominantly white neighborhood. This episode now has them reassessing other encounters, she said.
For example, there was the time that the Pahlavis had guests, also people of color, and one of them noticed Gordon sitting on his front porch, watching the house and cleaning his gun, Quinn said.
They are private people, Quinn said, but they decided to go public when they were dissatisfied with the response from police and town councilors. First, friends and supporters held a rally over the weekend on the Barrington Town Hall lawn. Then organizers for Black Lives Matter spoke with the Pahlavis about holding a rally in the neighborhood to pressure the attorney general’s office to add the sentencing enhancement to the charges.
“They feel exactly as you would feel if it happened to you,” Quinn said. “They really only wanted to live at the end of the street and raise their kids.” This episode will not drive them away, Quinn added: “The resounding statement from the family and the people in the community who value them: they’re not going anywhere.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv. Amanda Milkovits can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.