HOUSTON -- The crime was unspeakably horrific.
A 35-year-old Haitian immigrant and her 12-year-old son were forced into their home at gunpoint in the bleak Dunbar Village housing project in West Palm Beach, Fla. The woman was beaten, raped and sodomized for hours, allegedly by a gang of black teenagers, then forced to abuse her son. Finally the attackers doused the victims with household chemicals - pouring them directly into the boy's eyes - and attempted to set the pair on fire before fleeing.
Yet, outside of south Florida, the attack last June largely escaped notice, and it scarcely registered on the radar of national civil rights leaders because it involved the awkward topic of black-on-black crime.
Three weeks ago, however, the Rev. Al Sharpton and local representatives of the NAACP held a news conference in West Palm Beach, where they declared that four black teenagers arrested in the Dunbar Village attacks are being treated unfairly because they remain incarcerated without bond, while five white teenagers recently accused of sexually assaulting two white girls in nearby Boca Raton, Fla., were freed on bail.
"You cannot have one set of rules for acts that are wrong and horrific in Boca and another set in Dunbar Village," Sharpton said, as parents of some of the Dunbar defendants nodded behind him. "You must have equal protection under the law."
It was, for Sharpton and the NAACP, a familiar situation and a routine news conference: contrasting the treatment of blacks and whites in the criminal justice system and calling for fairness.
But Sharpton's remarks - and his apparent call for the Dunbar Village suspects to be released on bail - triggered outrage on dozens of Internet blogs devoted to civil rights, feminism and the interests of black crime victims. Now the Dunbar Village case is deepening a growing schism between traditional civil rights organizations and a new, Internet-driven generation of younger activists who take a more nuanced view of many issues.
"For Sharpton and the NAACP to come out and recklessly say we need to free these guys because some white guys over in Boca Raton are out on bail is just unconscionable," said Gina McCauley, an Austin, Texas, attorney and author of an influential African-American civil rights blog called What About Our Daughters?
"We've lost our way in the civil rights movement," McCauley added, "when in every case, no matter what an African-American is in custody for, we automatically start screaming about unfairness - even when they are in custody to protect the black community from them."
For his part, Sharpton strongly denied in an interview with the Chicago Tribune last week that he was ignoring the plight of the Dunbar Village victims or insisting that those accused of attacking them should be freed on bond. He said that his comments at the March 11 news conference had been misunderstood and that he had visited Dunbar Village several times this year to show support for the residents there and denounce the "hideous, deplorable" crime.
"My position is there ought to be one standard," Sharpton said. "The white kids in Boca Raton ought to be held just like the black kids in Dunbar Village. Why are they not doing the same with the white kids?"
Yet freedom for the four Dunbar Village defendants was the clear demand of the other participants at the news conference, where fliers were distributed proclaiming the teenagers to be "voiceless, vulnerable victims."
"We don't like what's going on. It's not right," said Ruby Walker, the mother of one of the Dunbar Village defendants, 17-year-old Nathan Walker. "I don't think we should have to suffer."
Maude Ford Lee, the president of the local West Palm Beach NAACP chapter, who joined Sharpton at the news conference, said she hoped Sharpton's presence would help expose the "injustice" of the case.
Sharpton's critics say it was wrong to equate the Dunbar Village and Boca Raton rape cases in the first place because the Dunbar Village case was far more vicious. In the Boca Raton case, the five white teenagers are accused of sexually assaulting two middle-school students after the group of seven engaged in a night of drinking Jan. 1.
Prosecutors say they have DNA evidence implicating three of the Dunbar Village suspects: Walker; Avion Lawson, 14; and Tommy Poindexter, 18. A fourth suspect, Jakaris Taylor, 16, pleaded guilty last November to charges of burglary and armed sexual battery in exchange for a 20-year sentence and a requirement that he testify against the others.
Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.