Assault on Bloomington resident prompts call for federal grand jury to investigate hate crimes across southern Indiana

At a press conference held Friday evening at People’s Park off Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington, Vauhxx Booker and his legal counsel, local attorney Katharine Liell, called for a federal grand jury to investigate the assault on Booker that took place last Saturday, July 4.

It’s not just last weekend’s incident at Lake Monroe that they want a grand jury to investigate.

Liell said, “I call upon the United States attorney for the Southern District of Indiana and Indianapolis to convene a grand jury not only to look into the hate crime where Vauhxx was the victim but all the other hate crimes that are going on in southern Indiana from Indianapolis…all the way to the river Ohio.”

Among the incidents that Liell wants investigated by federal authorities are recent events in Indianapolis where she described police as brutalizing protesters with tear gas.

Part of the episode at Lake Monroe that was captured on cell phone video includes Booker being held down against a tree by a white man, who will not let him up. In his descriptions of the assault, posted on Facebook and given at subsequent press conferences, Booker said he was overwhelmed by five white men, beaten and held against a tree, as one of them called repeatedly for a noose.

The physical encounter had followed claims made by the men to the property that Booker and others were crossing, in order to get to a place where they could view the lunar eclipse.

Booker said the man who was holding him down told others in Booker’s group that they should go, but leave the “boy” with him.

At Friday’s press conference, Booker said, “We are people, we are human. I am a man. I shouldn’t be beaten in the woods and called a boy.”

The call for a grand jury is prompted in part by the fact that in the week since the assault took place, Monroe County prosecutor Erika Oliphant has not yet charged anyone in the case. According to a statement from Oliphant’s office, that’s because her office has not yet received the investigative report from the law enforcement division of the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

DNR officers who responded to the 911 call on July did not arrest anyone at the time. The lack of any arrests, despite being presented with cell phone video footage at the scene, is one point of complaint that Booker has made about the DNR officers. Another point is that they didn’t check to see if he was injured when they first arrived, opting to talk first to the men who’d assaulted him, according to Booker.

In the statement released by prosecutor’s office on Thursday,  the time taken so far to collect evidence and interview witnesses is normal: “This has not been an unusually long investigation thus far.”

Liell told The Square Beacon, “Once the arrest doesn’t occur on the scene, it is normal to take a week, but I can connect the dots.” She added, “We are Bloomington. The State House never liked us.” Liell pointed to special legislation targeting Bloomington, involving plastic bag bans and municipal annexation procedures.

About the DNR, for which the state’s Republican governor is responsible, Liell asked: “How motivated do you think they are to come down and help our Monroe County prosecutor do the right thing? I don’t think they’re that motivated. I think he likes having [local prosecutor Erika Oliphant] catch the fire, rather than hold them accountable.”

Liell said the prosecutor’s office needs help in order for justice to be done: “We have a small prosecutor’s office in a small community, who is obviously struggling to get ahead of this case and to bring those suspects and arrest them. We need help.”

The help that could come in the form of a grand jury convened by the U.S. attorney for the district would include all the resources that the federal government has at it disposal. Liell said, “They have the jurisdiction to cast a wide net to look into all of this. … They have a civil rights division. We don’t.” Liell wrapped up by saying, “We need the federal government to come in and help protect the citizens of southern Indiana. Enough is enough.”

Among the advantages cited by Liell for a federal grand jury are the greater resources of the feds. Also a plus is that it’s citizens, as members of a grand jury, who help in deciding whether acts are prosecuted as crimes.

Liell responded to a question from The Square Beacon about a potential downside to grand juries: “Unfortunately there is secrecy in grand jury proceedings and that is definitely an unfortunate feature.” She added, “Grand jury proceedings don’t have to be secret—the law could change. But in the meantime there is no other way to cast the net so wide in our legal system.”

It’s on the federal level that needs to happen Liell said: “State courts are confined to the County of venue. So if we want to look at it systemically, there simply is no other way than the United States attorney’s office to get involved, so that they can look at the bigger picture.”

Several people spoke at the press conference in solidarity with Booker: IU professor of history Amrita Myers; Bloomington city clerk Nicole Bolden; Democratic Party nominee for state senate Shelli Yoder; organizers of the “Enough is Enough” demonstration, Patrick Ford and Selena Drake; and Monroe County Democratic Party chair Jennifer Crossley.

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