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Lovejoy mother ready to flee racist attacks; Although 3 suspects are in custody, woman worries harassment will escalate

Ann Cooper, an African-American mother, says she isn't sticking around to see a group of teenagers and men make good on threats to burn down her Lovejoy home.

They've already proved to her that they are capable of violence.

Chunks of brick, a hockey puck and a baseball bat came flying through windows of her home on Benzinger Street on Tuesday. Throughout the night, she said, carloads of whites drove by shouting racial slurs and asking if the "cotton pickers" inside the house were "cold" because of the shattered windows.

"We're moving out on Saturday to the West Side. They busted my windows and threatened to burn my house down," said Cooper, sitting in her living room Thursday and recapping what she called a week from hell. "Take a look outside, you can see the bricks in my front yard that they've thrown at the house."

This is not the first time racial tensions have flared in Lovejoy.

Seven years ago there were black-on-white attacks and vice versa, authorities said.

In 2000, a black man living with a white woman moved out of the neighborhood after he was attacked.

On Thursday, whites in Lovejoy openly admitted that, decades earlier, it was not the wisest thing for a black person to walk down East Lovejoy Street. They say the community is now much more tolerant and diverse.

The latest rash of racial tension came to a boil late Tuesday night when Ferry-Fillmore District police arrested three males and accused them of hate crimes for smashing the windows and shouting racial epithets at the black family. They were part of a larger group police estimated at 30 people.

Jamie L. Zawadzki, 19; Alex J. Boivin, 18; and Wilfredo A. Vasquez, 17, are charged with second-degree aggravated harassment as a hate crime and criminal mischief.

Police thought a gang might be living in Cooper's home because of the many people there, but Council President Richard Fontana, who represents Lovejoy, said he investigated and determined it was a big family.

No one disputes that a large number of relatives were on hand earlier this week. Cooper, 40, explained that they came over to protect her and her immediate family from attacks.

Police officials late Thursday said the investigation is not complete.

"Even though three people have been arrested, Buffalo police continue to look into the matter," said spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge, who urged anyone with information to call the confidential tip line at 847-2255.

The racial slurs and calls for Cooper and her family to move out of Lovejoy began shortly after she moved into the house on Jan. 11, she said, following a landlord dispute at her former residence on Riley Street on the East Side.

"The ceiling there was falling down, and I refused to pay the rent," she said.

Cooper said that when she told friends that she was moving to Lovejoy, they warned her not to expect residents there to roll out the welcome mat for people of color.

"Just this past Sunday, my friend said, 'They ain't killed you yet or burned a cross on your lawn?' I said to her that they don't do that," she said.

A day later, though, the slurs escalated into physical attacks.

"They kept saying [the N-word] and it got to my nephew and there was a fight. Then on Tuesday, they broke the windows and on Wednesday Council President Fontana came here because he said police heard a gang was living here, but I told him it was my family. After I showed him it was my family, he said he could see there was no gang living there," Cooper said.

She and her husband, Ronald, live in the home with eight of their 14 children and a niece, who range in age from 5 to 23. On Sundays, she said, many other relatives visit.

"I cook a big dinner every Sunday and the family all comes here," she said, adding that the family also visits during the week.

Despite the mistreatment, Cooper said part of her would rather stay and not be bullied out of Lovejoy.

"By moving out, I'm giving them exactly what they want. I'm not afraid of anything. I'm just protecting my children. Other than that, I wouldn't move."

The incidents of this past week have been the talk of this predominantly white neighborhood.

A 15-year-old acquainted with the three arrested teenagers said he was there when the windows were smashed, but added that it was in retaliation for attacks by blacks against his friends, who often congregate in a public parking lot on East Lovejoy next to the Cooper house.

"They jumped Jamie on Monday night, and he ended up with seven staples in his head," the teenager said, referring to Zawadzki, one of the three teens who was arrested. "Jamie is Arabic and Wilfredo is Hispanic. How can they say it was a hate crime?"

On Tuesday, according to the 15-year-old, the black teens instigated another fight and a white teenager "raised up a baseball bat and later another white kid was jumped."

Cooper said the confrontations occurred only after her nephews and her older son were attacked.

Providing other perspectives on race relations in Lovejoy were several residents, black, white and Hispanic.

No one seemed to disagree that there is a racial undercurrent as more black families move into the community, but they say there can be harmony if respect and restraint is shown, especially among young people.

"I will honestly say that if you come here and give respect, you won't have a problem," said Laurie Sanchez, who lives and works in Lovejoy.

Donald Petrucci Jr., 53, who has lived in Lovejoy all his life, said the neighborhood is changing from the once cozy-community where everyone knew one another and a stranger was instantly recognized.

"We're a good neighborhood. It's just sad to see people leave. That hasn't helped," said Petrucci, who spoke as a highlift was demolishing his family's former dry cleaners on East Lovejoy near Davey Street.

"My dad and grandfather ran that business for 65 years. People would stop by every morning for coffee, including the neighborhood priest."

Frank J. Leo, 88, another lifelong resident, lamented changes in the neighborhood.

"There was never a door locked when I was growing up. Now doors are chained and bolted shut," he said.

But even as these folks spoke, others within earshot of a reporter and photographer for The Buffalo News muttered racial slurs.

Charles Baker, 54, who is black and has lived in Lovejoy for the last two years, said steps need to be taken to defuse racial tensions.

"Someone is going to have to handle this problem or it will get worse. I treat people with respect, but I have been called names by young people," Baker said. "There needs to be a community meeting where whites and blacks can come together and talk out the problem."

Fontana said Cooper is credible in her claims of racism.

"But let's put this in perspective," he said. "I believe neighborhood youth lit a spark on a fuse that they did not understand. In my opinion, they made some improper comments and then it escalated into two groups of people fighting."

Fontana said he went out Wednesday to meet with young people to tell them to leave the Cooper family alone.

"I told the groups no more walking aimlessly down the street looking for trouble and if you're going to be on the East Lovejoy business strip, you better have a purpose for being there," he said. "I'm trying to defuse the situation and teach these children this is not the way to go."

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