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Case Hints at Split Between Longtimers, Latinos

In a rural county coping with big changes, five high school students are suspected of attacking immigrant workers.

March 22, 2004|Ellen Barry and Rennie Sloan | Times Staff Writers

CANTON, Ga. — In a county where rural Georgia washes up against Atlanta's ever-expanding suburbs, police say that a group of high school boys learned a brutal trick.

Pulling up beside one of the Latino day laborers who stand by the roadside, they would offer to pay him for work. Then they would drive him to an isolated spot and beat him -- with a pipe in the first case police recorded, fence posts in the second. In a third case, some of the same teenagers are accused of clambering out of a pickup truck in a dark parking lot and beating a worker with a baseball bat.

In all three cases, the victims were robbed by their attackers.

The arrest of five students from Cherokee High School -- in attacks that may be prosecuted as hate crimes -- hints at the social friction just outside Atlanta's churning megalopolis, where farm country is giving way to subdivisions and pickup trucks to sport utility vehicles.

Along with this change have come thousands of immigrant workers, who walk by the roadside in mud-caked boots and climb into vehicles with strangers who offer them work for the day. At night they retreat to a community so isolated and insular that even after years in this country, some have learned only a few words of English.

New immigrants -- many from Guatemala -- now make up a significant portion of Canton's population, but most locals have little contact with them, said the Rev. Joseph Fahy, who serves Latino parishioners at Our Lady of LaSalette Church.

Canton's population of 7,709 is 68.8% white, 23.7% Latino and 5.6% black.

"I'm not sure how many people realize the number of Latinos. It's something that doesn't really interest them," Fahy said. "They're there, but they're not there, you know."

When the five high school students were arrested for assaults on Feb. 2 and 3, friends and neighbors described them as ordinary Cherokee County boys, teenagers who went to church with their families and grew up outdoors.

One of them stood out because he was notably well-connected: 18-year-old Ben Cagle, whose family owns Cagle's Dairy. Cagle's grandparents were founding members of Cherokee County's Republican Party, and the family is "huge in the Farm Bureau, huge in the Chamber of Commerce," said Linda Parker, former head of the county's Republican Party.

So well-known are they, in fact, that Cagle's arrest sent ripples through the county establishment: Dist. Atty. Gary Moss recused himself from the prosecution, saying he was acquainted with Cagle's family. A short time later, two Superior Court judges recused themselves, giving no reason.

"I'm surprised that anybody of that stature would get involved," said Bill Shipp, a longtime columnist and editor who publishes a newsletter on Georgia politics. "Having a Cagle involved, that is a real aberration. It's not part of middle-class Republicanism."

Latinos are part of a major demographic shift in Cherokee County, which lies about 30 miles north of Atlanta. Old county families look warily at the rows of $400,000 houses that lap at the outskirts of Canton.

With the approach of the suburbs came Spanish-speaking workers, who arrived "rather suddenly" 10 years ago, said Bob Lipscomb, who owns a photography studio in Canton. Now they make up 5.8% of the county's population -- and nearly a quarter of Canton's.

Some people here complain about the presence of immigrants, viewing them as a drain on public resources.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) has cosponsored a bill that would empower local police to arrest suspected undocumented immigrants. State Rep. Chip Rogers of Woodstock has sponsored three anti-immigration bills, including one that would cut off all state services to anyone not in the country legally.

"They're coming across our borders rapidly, in exponential numbers," said Parker, now secretary of the state Republican Party. "It's a burden on the county, it's a burden on the state, it's a burden on the nation. That's not fair, to say someone is a burden. But it is an adjustment."

There are now 93 Latinos among the 1,756 students at Cherokee High School, which made national news two years ago when white students clashed with administrators over their right to wear clothing displaying the Confederate flag.

Outside a skate park last week, 17-year-old Joey "Ozzy" Osborne said tensions have been running high between the school's most distinct social groups -- the Latinos and the "rednecks."

"You could cut the tension with a fork in there, dude," said Osborne, whose silver necklace was dotted with rebel flags.

Most people say the immigrants have settled serenely into Cherokee County. Half the Spanish-speaking population -- or "Mexicans," as many local people refer to them -- are actually Mayans from villages in the mountains of Guatemala who speak Spanish as a second language, said Jaime Escamilla, an advocate with Ministries United for Service and Training. Some are illiterate, he said.

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