On Palm Sunday, one resident of Arlington awoke to find a cross burning in his front yard.
Sometime between 1 and 2 a.m. on March 25, two neighbors separately saw a large, red pickup truck parked in front of a home on Campbell Avenue, a quiet, residential street off Atlantic Boulevard. Based on their accounts, and the homeowner's, the cross was roughly 6 to 8 feet tall and large enough to burn throughout the night and into the morning, when authorities extinguished it.
In a telephone interview, the homeowner, Mohamed Saleh, who is black, told me that he believes someone wants to kill him. According to the incident report, Saleh told police that he has recently been receiving mysterious phone calls from a phone number in Boca Raton; when he answers, no one speaks.
"I am under siege," he said.
Saleh's neighbor, Isel Caballero-Brown, told me in a telephone interview that she saw the truck upon returning home around 1:20 a.m.
"The curious thing was ... the door was open and nobody was inside," she said. Caballero-Brown added that, before going to bed and after taking her corrective lenses off, she saw through her window "something like fire."
"I didn't even know it was a cross," she said, adding, "I never thought something bad happened."
Around the same time, Matthew Hazelwood and his girlfriend spotted the truck and its occupant, whom he described as an overweight white man of average height, approximately 55 to 65 years old, with grey hair, and wearing a blue or grey hoodie. He told me over the phone that the man was "trying to get away quickly." Hazelwood got dressed and briefly gave chase, but the man fled before he could get a photo or take down the license plate. Hazelwood told JSO he was certain the truck was a Dodge Ram 1500.
Both Hazelwood and Caballero-Brown said that they had not seen the truck in their neighborhood before the incident.
All three neighbors seemed surprised by what had transpired. "We don't live in that kind of world anymore," said Hazelwood.
When Saleh woke in the morning and saw the burning cross in his yard, he called police. After police arrived at 10:48 a.m., per the incident report, a fire crew was summoned to put out the smoldering cross.
Saleh, a psychiatrist, said that he does not believe that police are taking the cross-burning seriously.
"How could they call it criminal mischief?" he said, adding, "Everywhere it's a felony ... when the cross burn in the yard of a black person."
Via email, a JSO spokesperson wrote, "We take this seriously. At the scene when patrol officers responded, they called out our Intelligence Unit who responded to the scene, as well as an evidence technician. Our Intelligence Unit is now handling this investigation."
Police records indicate that four officers, including two detectives, a sergeant and a lieutenant, were at the scene, along with Jacksonville Fire & Rescue.
The JSO spokesperson described the investigation as "active and ongoing," and said that if a hate crime were committed, under Florida law, it could elevate the underlying offense by one degree. In Florida, burning a cross on another person's property without permission is classified as a first-degree misdemeanor. If the cross-burning was motivated by race, religion, ethnicity, etc., it could be reclassified as a third-degree felony. Under federal law, cross-burning to threaten or intimidate can be deemed a hate crime.
Though burning crosses dates back nearly a millennium, in America, cross-burning has historically been used to threaten and intimidate black people, most famously by white supremacist terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan. The Supreme Court has held that cross-burning is a protected form of expression under the First Amendment, but that protection is narrow, and does not extend to cross-burnings on the property of another or for purposes of intimidation.
This afternoon, Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me over the phone, "This is the classic American hate crime ... any burning cross needs to be investigated as a potential hate crime."
Beirich said that hate crimes aren't typically about individuals, but groups, which elevates the seriousness. She said that it's the job of police to protect and reassure the community when a hate crime is committed, as well as to potentially coordinate with federal law enforcement. If the circumstances indicate a hate crime has been committed, "This needs to go into the FBI hate crimes statistics," she said.
"When communities are reporting hate crimes, that doesn't mean it's a hate-filled place," she noted.
Dissatisfied with the efforts of police, Saleh said that he traveled to the nation's capital today to take the matter up with the feds.
"I'm going to the Department of Justice ... that's a hate crime," he said.