LEVI LEE and Bryson Mills arrived on the doorstep of the Daily News last week looking bruised and battered.
Even hard-bitten reporters - their eyes widening - seemed taken aback by the appearance of the two young men.
Their clothes were smudged with blood. Mills gingerly pressed an ice pack to his right eye, which was swollen shut. Lee sported gashes in his lip and head.
But the worst injuries weren't visible.
As victims of an alleged hate crime, Lee and Mills said they suffered the kind of soul-penetrating wounds that may never completely heal.
"They didn't know us," Lee said. "We didn't know them.
"They just beat us up because of the color of our skin."
Lee and Mills, both 22, said that they were so disturbed by the experience that they felt compelled to speak out publicly. They recounted their story with a kind of mild-mannered outrage:
Mills had just one more week of summer vacation before classes resumed at Bloomsburg University, where he is captain of the basketball team. Lee, who graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., in May, wanted to show his childhood friend a good time before he went back to school.
Duded up in designer clothing, they spent Thursday night clubbing in Old City. They finished the evening at Moda Lounge, a hip place on Chestnut Street known for speciality cocktails and a big dance floor. At about 2 a.m., they walked along Market Street, looking to catch a cab home. The streets were peppered with weary partyers. Suddenly, at 5th and Market streets, Lee and Mills said that they spotted about six or seven white men chasing a black man.
" 'Get back here, n-----,' " one yelled, according to Lee and Mills. " 'We gonna get you, n-----.' "
One of the white guys took a swing at the black guy, and Mills said that he yelled out something like, "Yo, they're jumping that black guy!"
The pack of white males turned their attention to Mills and Lee, while the guy they were chasing took off toward Penns Landing and disappeared.
"That's when they came running towards us and said, 'You f------ n------,' " Lee said.
One guy took a swing at Mills, striking him in the shoulder. Mills said he threw a punch and another guy joined the fight. Lee stepped in to help Mills, and three other white guys pounced. Some wielded two-by-fours. The wooden planks sliced Lee's face, according to Mills and Lee.
As stunned witnesses watched, Lee said he ran into the middle of Market Street and stopped a police car. Meanwhile, Mills lay crumbled on the ground after getting repeatedly stomped, kicked and punched. The white guys ran off, screaming racial slurs, Mills and Lee said.
"It's like they had no regard for us as human beings," Mills said.
Paramedics took Mills and Lee to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where they spent six hours before doctors determined that they had suffered no broken bones or serious head injuries. Mills' girlfriend, Courtney Gordon, said that she was deep asleep at 4:30 a.m. when Lee called.
"He said, 'I need you to come to the hospital. Bryson's eye looks very bad,' " Gordon said.
When she got to Jefferson about a half-hour later, Gordon said that she tried to hide her horror when she saw Mills. By then, police Det. Thomas Galonsky was there to take their statements. He informed them that police already had two suspects in custody.
"There was a real good witness, an independent witness, who watched the whole thing," Galonsky said in a phone interview Friday.
The witness pointed out two guys, who were nabbed about a block away from 5th and Market, Galonsky said.
Police arrested Richard Lyons, 25, and James Genearao, 26, also known as James Cummings, both from the city's Fishtown section. Lyons and Genearao, who was charged under the name Cummings, were charged with criminal conspiracy, possession of an instrument of a crime, simple assault, aggravated assault, terroristic threats, reckless endangerment and ethnic intimidation.
Galonsky said that he was still trying to identify other possible suspects. He didn't know whether to characterize the incident as a hate crime, he said.
"I think some hate might have come out during the attack, but I don't know what sparked the whole thing," he said.
Lyons' mother, Nicole Lyons, said that her son is not a racist.
"I know my son and he's not anything like that," she said.
She claimed that Mills and Lee attacked her son, perhaps in an attempt to rob him. Genearao's family could not be reached for comment.
Lee and Mills grew up together in North Philly and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School. They both won college scholarships. In college, they thrived, feeling as though no matter their ethnicity or where they came from, if they worked hard nothing could hold them back.
Now they are less certain of that. Never before had they encountered such in-your-face racism, Lee and Mills said.
Mills' mother, Anita Bethea, said that she cried when her son told her what had happened.
"Something just dropped in me," Bethea said. "It really hurt. I was upset that he had to learn that racial tension and racial hatred still exist in 2008. His belief that all is right with the world is gone. There is no getting it back." *