Pa. town tense after racial friction explodes into riot

July 17, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Correspondent

HANOVER, PA. -- This town of 15,000 has 22 blacks.

For some here, that apparently is too many.

Hanover was the scene of a race riot last weekend that has left town officials defensive, and some residents puzzled, some amazed and others tense about what the rest of the summer might hold.

"This used to be a peaceful town.We never had any problems like this before," said Arnold Etzler, 84, a retired shoe factory worker and 63-year resident. "I just wonder what's next."

Witnesses say the riot that erupted on the town square shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday was the result of tension building for several weeks over black men dating white women and because of an increased presence of blacks on the town square.

"If a white girl wants to date ablack guy, that's her business. But a lot of people around here don't feel that way," said Mike, a 22-year-old unemployed laborer who refused to give his last name.

Borough officials recently closed the Hanover Street playground, a gathering spot for youths, after complaints from neighbors about suspected drug activity and unruly behavior. So the youths, black and white, hang out at the square.

About six weeks ago, a group of black men also began to visit twowhite women living at the Tailored Lady Apartments, a 16-unit building on Chestnut Street near the town square.

Neighbors said the men taunted residents, spit from the roof of the building and hurled bottles at passers-by. The neighbors said the men's unruly behavior and the fact that they didn't live in Hanover fueled much of their anger.

Janice Small said there were disputes over stolen bicycles, smashed car windows and loud, abusive language late at night. "If everyone involved was white, we still would've felt the same if these people acted the way they did," she said.

Last Wednesday, a group of bikers said they were coming to town Saturday night for a confrontation, Mrs. Small said. "The word was they were going to take back the town," she said.

Up to 400 people showed up at the square Saturday night.

The police had requested assistance from seven neighboring departments, but the scope of the violence caught everyone off guard.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said Rich Heiland, publisher of the Hanover Evening Sun, who had just left a party nearby when therioting began.

About 400 whites gathered on one side of the square, and a much smaller group, predominantly black, gathered on the other side.

Police kept the two groups separated, but they yelled racial epithets at each other.

About 11 p.m., police ordered the smaller group to leave. As the blacks started to leave, the lines broke and the fighting started. Men went after each other with baseball bats, knives, tire chains, bricks and hockey sticks.

When a group of bikers chased a group of black men down a street Saturday shortly after 11 p.m., some in the crowd of 400 cheered, the newspaper reported.

Nine adults and two juveniles were arrested, and one person was injured.

Police sealed off the square Sunday, blocking the intersection of two state highways to all cars, witnesses said. Mayor W. Roy Attlesberger declared a state of emergency, authorizing police to arrest anyone found on the street after midnight.

But sporadic fights broke out Sunday night, and by the end of the weekend, the number arrested had increased to 36 adults and 17 juveniles. The town square "resembled a battlefield," the Hanover Evening Sun said.

A front-page editorial that called the riot "the vilest of human reactions and the mob "self-appointed vigilantes" brought a largely positive response from readers, said Wayne Lowman, the newspaper's editor.

"The majority of the residents in this community are not racists and do not condone what's gone on in the square," Mr. Lowman said.

But many residents interviewedyesterday shared the view held by Thomas Ness, who blames the troubles on the two women for dating black men and bringing them into Hanover.

"They brought it all on themselves. The white living with the colored and the colored living with the white. If they hadn't come into town, we wouldn't have this mess," said Mr. Ness, 57.

Many of the Hanover residents referred to blacks as "coloreds."

A black resident who asked not to be identified said he was politely told by a friend to stop patronizing a store in Hanover because the owner did not want blacks around.

"It's all quite disturbing," he said.

James Ham, a black engineer for the Federal Communications Commission, said he moved to Hanover six months ago but does little socializing there.

"If the problem in Hanover is a racial problem, and if the residents of Hanover have a problem with interracial relationships, then they are really living in the past," he said. He declined to comment further.

Mr. Heiland thinks Hanover's racial problems can be traced to the fact that most of the town's residents just don't know any blacks.

"It's ignorance," said Mr. Heiland, who moved to Hanover from Huntsville, Texas, in September.

A committee of church and civic leaders has been set up to explore the underlying causes of the violence and look for ways to avoid further problems.

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