ST. LOUIS — Bosnians in St. Louis are demanding a stronger police presence in their community after 32-year-old immigrant Zemir Begic, whose funeral is being held Saturday in Iowa, was brutally killed last Sunday.
And early Friday morning a 26-year-old Bosnian woman was attacked in the same neighborhood, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an incident the FBI is investigating as a hate crime.
Hundreds of people protested on Sunday after Begic was beaten to death with a hammer, returning to the streets on Monday. The demonstrators held signs reading “Bosnian lives matter,” playing off protests in nearby Ferguson, where “Black lives matter” has become a theme of demonstrations over the Aug. 9 shooting of black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. The Bosnian protesters blocked traffic on Gravois Avenue, a main thoroughfare that runs through southern St. Louis and the heart of the Bevo Mill neighborhood, known as Little Bosnia.
Begic was reportedly killed after four teenagers approached his parked car and started hitting it with hammers. They attacked him when he got out of the car and confronted them; the autopsy revealed he died from blunt force trauma to his head. Begic’s fiancée and two friends were with him at the time.
“It is a shock and horror for the community,” said Jasmin Sekic, who participated in the protests. “It’s the saddest thing I read in months. [Begic] protected his [fiancée] by hiding her behind him. It’s really touched every single Bosnian’s heart here and people in St. Louis.”
Adis Mahmuljin, who helped organize the demonstrations, said many in the community believe Begic was targeted because he was white — of the three suspects arrested, two are black, and one is Hispanic — but St. Louis officials rejected that suspicion.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay reportedly said, “There is no evidence that this was a crime occasioned by the race or ethnicity of the victim.” Police Chief Sam Dotson agreed. One of the suspects, 17-year-old Robert Joseph Mitchell, has reportedly been charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action.
“Even though we feel that way, those kids that did those actions, they don’t speak for a whole community or a whole race,” Mahmuljin said. “So we can’t sit here and say it’s a black and white thing [or] it’s a black and Bosnian thing. Everybody needs to take a step back and realize that these are young foolish kids that probably didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t know what they were getting into.”
“The actions of these kids shouldn’t divide us,” he added, “but bring us together to look for a solution.”
He said many in the community feel Begic’s killing, which made headlines in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is not getting the attention it deserves locally.
“One of the largest issues the Bosnian community in St. Louis has is the issue of security,” said Akif Cogo, who manages St. Louis Bosnian, a local nonprofit organization. “Over a few years, the area of the city where Bosnians live deteriorated quite a bit.”
On Sunday, Dotson promised the crowd of protesters a stronger police presence.
Cogo said there was an immediate increase in police patrols in the area after the first protests. No other protests are planned at this time, but Mahmuljin said there would be more if the community feels law enforcement fails to maintain a presence in the area.
In May 2013, a 19-year-old Bosnian man was shot and killed in a convenience store robbery that rattled the community. The next week an immigrant from Bhutan was killed nearby.
“At the time, we had a strong promise from the city and police officials that they would increase patrols in our area,” Cogo said. “And for a time, they did exactly that, but over the last year and a half, those patrols were dwindling down, and the community was disappointed that such a level of attention was not being kept up.”
Cogo said Begic’s murder came on the heels of an unrelated carjacking and armed robbery in the neighborhood.
“The police departments have been stretched out so far [because of the protests in St. Louis],” said Mahmuljin. “So they haven’t had the manpower [or] the resources to focus on what’s going on in the immediate area.”
The city’s Bosnian population, which is estimated at nearly 70,000, is largely made up of Bosnian Muslims who arrived as refugees during the bloody civil war that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart in the early 1990s. Many are survivors of brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns.
Since their arrival, they have been largely credited for rebuilding Bevo Mill, a dilapidated industrial-era working-class neighborhood in southern St. Louis. A long stretch of Gravois Avenue is now lined with Bosnian-, Albanian- and Roma-owned businesses, restaurants and cafes.
Recently, residents have noticed an uptick in crime. “We came here for peace and freedom and a new start,” Sekic said. “So the reason we really are protesting is that we’ve been here for close for 20 years, and we’ve grown with the community and we’ve become part of it.”
Cogo said the Bosnians are “a prime example of a community that understands … the loss and sorrow that many are experiencing in St. Louis.”
“[We are] well aware of the consequences of division and violence that could arise from any type of behavior like this,” he said. “So we are looking forward to building upon our experiences and help repairing our broken hearts and divided city, and we believe that we have that strong spirit that will unite not only Bosnians but everyone in the city and resolve our issues that are here in front of us.”
Mahmuljin said protesters also expressed frustration over a lack of political representation. Despite their large and notable presence in St. Louis, there has not been one appointed or elected Bosnian representative in local or state government.
“Nobody on the actual payroll of the city or the state can represent us as a community,” he said. “So what we have now is basically what we built on our own.”