NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) – Last June, a Black family of four traveled to Narragansett to visit the beach and have lunch at a well-known restaurant when they crossed paths with a white woman who started yelling racial slurs at them, according to court and police records reviewed by Target 12.
“Look at this [expletive] Black guy,” she said out of nowhere when she saw them, according to witnesses who described the incident, which took place at the Coast Guard House. “Go back where you came from.”
About a month later Narragansett police arrested Christine Longo, a 34-year-old South Kingstown woman, and charged her with a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct. Three months after that, R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha added the state’s rarely used hate crime law to her offense. She was arraigned last September and pleaded not guilty.
“Think about that – if you were that family,” Neronha said last week after referencing the case during a national panel discussion focused on hate crimes in America.
Longo — whose listed attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment — is now facing a bench trial before Associate Judge James Caruolo beginning Wednesday in Washington County District Court. She’s accused of first berating the East Providence family’s father, who went inside the restaurant ahead of his wife and teenage children, before leaving the restaurant and allegedly yelling at the rest of them.
“This incident made us feel unsafe, unwelcomed, and very threatened,” the father’s 17-year-old daughter wrote in a witness statement after the incident. “We felt as if we were being treated as inferior human beings.”
“We are shocked that some people still judge others solely based on the color of their skin,” she added. “This event has left a lasting psychological trauma in our lives; we no longer feel safe. My mother cried that day. We need to deliver a message that his sort of behavior is unacceptable.”
The father and daughter are expected to testify Wednesday, according to a state spokesperson.
The alleged interaction happened less than three weeks after a white Minnesota police officer was captured on video murdering George Floyd, a Black man, spurring nationwide protests over racial injustice in America.
“The nation was gripped by civil unrest, riots and protests,” special assistant attorneys general Robert Johnson IV and Keith Hoffman argued in court documents. “It was in this environment of surging focus on racism and racial injustice that the [family] made their way to Narragansett Beach that Sunday in the middle of June.”
Neronha’s decision to apply Rhode Island’s 1998 Hate Crimes Sentencing Act means that Longo could face a stricter sentence if found guilty. But the statute has proven difficult to apply in the past.
The law requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant “intentionally selected the person against whom the offense is committed” because of their “hatred or animus toward the actual or perceived disability, religion, color, race, national origin or ancestry, sexual orientation, or gender of that person.”
In February, a district court judge rejected the state’s argument that Dr. Richard Gordon, a Barrington man, committed a hate crime when he shouted vulgarities and racial slurs at a neighbor of Middle Eastern descent. Gordon was found guilty of disorderly conduct and assault.
Neronha’s office also applied the hate crime sentencing enhancement in a third case tied to the arrest of Joseph Francis, who is facing several felony and misdemeanor charges after an alleged road-rage incident in East Greenwich in 2020. Francis was arraigned and pleaded not guilty on March 26.
Prior to the three most recent cases, the hate crime law had not been applied in at least the past five years, according to Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office.
In an effort to make the sentencing enhancement easier to apply, Neronha is backing legislation currently before the General Assembly that would permit applying the hate crimes law when the defendant is motivated “in whole or in part due to the victim’s status as a member of the protected group.” It would also add gender identity to the list of protected groups.
The legislation is sponsored in both chambers by Rep. Mary Ann Shallcross Smith, D-Lincoln, and Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield. Hearings on the bill were held last month, but no votes have been scheduled.
Longo was arrested roughly a month after the incident in Narragansett last year. The 17-year-old daughter was able to capture a photo of Longo’s license plate number while she drove away from the restaurant after berating the family, according to court documents.
“This experience was life-changing: for the first time ever, we felt as if our skin color made us different from other people,” the daughter wrote in her witness statement.