- Mitch Ryals photo
- Nicky Brown (left) and Jasmine Sanchez are still shaken weeks after the altercation.
It begins innocently enough, with kids and ice cream and church.
Jose Ceniceros, the kids' community director for Immanuel Church in West Central Spokane, along with two other volunteers, take a group of five high schoolers to Coeur d'Alene to hear a guest preacher.
But the sermon is quickly overshadowed during a pit stop for ice cream on the way home.
Ceniceros finishes ordering vanilla cones for everyone at a Coeur d'Alene McDonald's, and the group turns to leave when a goateed man in a reflective vest begins "railing" at them, he says. Just as Ceniceros walks out the door, he says, the man, Richard Sovenski, sucker punches him from behind, knocking him to the ground.
Ceniceros scrambles to his feet, pulls his cell phone out and begins to record. That footage is now a major piece of evidence in the felony hate crime charge against the 52-year-old Sovenski, of Hayden, and has gone viral online with media outlets across the country reposting his racist and homophobic tirade. In the 53-second video, Sovenski calls the teenagers "half breeds" and charges at them, saying "I will f—k you up in a f—kin' heartbeat, you f—kin' little faggot."
A man identified as Sovenski's son, wearing American flag shorts, grabs his genitals. And before turning back into the the restaurant Sovenski yells: "Get the f—k out of Idaho. F—k you, you f—kin' half breeds."
Sovenski was arrested five days later and charged with misdemeanor battery and felony malicious harassment, Idaho's hate crime statute. He bonded out soon after and is awaiting trial.
As Ceniceros and the teenagers reflect on the incident, it's also forced their larger church community to grapple with the footage of Sovenski's actions, another in a recent barrage of viral videos showing hateful, brazen racism in the United States.
Ceniceros can't help but wonder if Sovenski would be facing charges were it not for his video.
Before Sovenski's arrest, and before the video is published online, the victims are left to wallow in fear and confusion.
Jasmine Sanchez and her friend, Nicky Brown, are among the teenagers at the McDonald's that evening. As Ceniceros drives them home, Sanchez calls her mom, Hope Vasquez, with one question: "What do I do?"
Vasquez tells both girls not to let Sovenski's words define them.
"It's not knowing different people, and the hate in his heart," Vasquez says. "He's got something going on within him. Clearly he's angry."
Both girls, who are 16, were supposed to go to a family get-together at Hayden Lake the following Saturday, they say, but neither felt much like attending.
"Every time I go to Idaho now, I'm like 'What's going to happen next?'" Brown says. "I don't feel the same way when I'm here [in Washington]."
"Like you just always gotta watch over your shoulder now," Sanchez says of how the incident has changed her thinking.
On the Sunday following the incident, Ceniceros recounts the incident for his church congregation at Immanuel. Through tears, Ceniceros tells them "the hardest thing for me to do that night was to get in the van, get the kids home, and on the way home join together with them to pray for this guy. Because I'm angry, and I'm upset. Dammit these are kids. No kid deserves this."
Rob Fairbanks, the lead pastor at Immanuel, says Ceniceros' speech stunned the crowd. Suddenly, the viral videos from other parts of the country didn't seem so distant.
- Richard Sovenski
"It was like everybody got gut punched," he says. "This is more than rhetoric that's floating around. It's going on right here."
For Rodney McAuley, the director of church and community engagement for Youth For Christ, where Immanuel holds its services, the altercation was "stirring," though not unusual in his experience with closed-mindedness in the Inland Northwest.
Still, both Fairbanks and McAuley speak of reconciliation, of "striking a balance between Malcolm and Martin," as McAuley puts it."
"It breaks my heart to see yet another manifestation of brokenness in our community," McAuley says. "There needs to be accountability, but my wish is there would be a heart change, that the anger and hate, or whatever was triggered, would be surfaced and addressed."
Going forward, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, and its co-founder Tony Stewart, are providing support for the victims. Stewart and the task force were instrumental in dismantling the Aryan Nations compound just north of Hayden in 2000, and he's continued that civil rights work ever since.
"Every time they appear in court, we'll be with them," Stewart says.
Once the video was posted online, it didn't take long for the phone calls and messages to start pouring in from local and national media outlets — so many in fact that Facebook temporarily shut down Ceniceros' account, he says.
The Inlander, which first published the video July 18, also received messages from media outlets including the Idaho Statesman and The Independent, in the U.K. Viral content farms ViralHog and Storyful, companies that try to gobble up potentially viral videos and resell the license to other outlets, also reached out to inquire about licensing agreements.
By Friday, just two days later, more images of bigotry captured across the United States had surfaced. It takes Brian Levin, director of the Center for the study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, several seconds to scroll through his Twitter feed to find the video of Sovenski.
He scrolls past a video of a white Detroit business owner who spits on a black man; past the photo of the now former Clark County Sheriff's deputy who was fired after posting a photo wearing a sweatshirt with a Proud Boys logo, a group of conservative nationalists; and past the video of a white woman telling a mixed race family to "get out of Berkeley."
Levin has studied hate and bigotry for decades. In the past year, he's noticed a increase in these types of videos, which spread like wildfire on the internet.
Specifically, for Levin the flashpoint was the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a protester was killed.
Levin sees value in the videos' efficiency at exposing this kind of behavior. But he worries that the quick, breaking news posts might leave out crucial context, such as the mental capacity of those involved. And the knee-jerk reaction to publicly shame individuals may destroy an opportunity to reverse hateful thinking.
"Shaming is not the same as rehabilitating," he says. "I think that we have to look to experts to solve the polarization in this country, who go beyond the first steps of impulsive shaming into something more holistic."
Statistically, Levin's analysis of police data shows that hate crimes in the 10 largest U.S. cities increased for the fourth consecutive year in 2017. The 12 percent increase, a total of 1,038 hate crimes, is the highest in more than a decade.
Coeur d'Alene Police Capt. David Hagar says only three hate crimes were reported to the CPD in 2017.
Ceniceros' video ends with Sovenski walking back into the McDonald's, but the berating didn't stop there.
Brown and Sanchez, the high schoolers present that evening, say that Sovenski's wife came out into the parking lot after the altercation and called them "whores" and "tramps."
The woman later tells police that the kids were "being rude, dancing and running around causing a disturbance" in the restaurant, according to a police report. She'd recently had surgery, she tells the officer, and she was afraid the kids would bump into her and knock her over.
Brown, who is biracial, and Sanchez, who is Hispanic, don't deny that they were dancing and acting silly, but they ask why, if the woman feared for her safety, she came out to the parking lot to call them names.
Ceniceros, Sanchez and Brown are heartened that Sovenski is charged with a crime, but they question why it took police five days to make an arrest.
Hagar, the Coeur d'Alene Police captain, says that time frame is relatively quick for these types of cases.
"If people of two different races get into a fight, it's hard to show what the motivation was," Hagar says. "In a case like this, where we have footage, it's much easier to prove."
Even as the case moves forward, the words still sting.
"It's like, hurtful hearing those things," Brown says. "God made me this way. It just, like, hurts." ♦