County residents and community leaders tugged a common thread last weekend that has connected all ethnic groups in the wake of the volatile race riots that have ravaged Los Angeles.
Concern about race relations brought 23 county leaders to a 7:30 a.m. meeting Saturday, and more than 150 residents to a Sunday night town meeting sponsored by the NAACP.
The meetings were organized as the county looks for ways to cope with a recent string of local hate incidents, and after riots erupted in Los Angeles following the acquittals of four white police officers who were videotaped beating black motorist Rodney King.
James E. Henson Sr., the county's human rights administrator, said he called the Saturday meeting after "wrestling" with the Los Angeles verdict Thursday night. He said the county needed "to talk about it before we found ourselves reacting."
The group included representatives from the police department, County Council and State's Attorney's Office, and resulted in identifying 12 problems leaders feel must be resolved to improve racial harmony in the county.
The group -- which also included County Executive Charles I. Ecker, Rabbi Mark Panoff, and School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey -- pledged to look at ways to attack institutional racism, a prejudiced and insensitive criminal justice system, insensitivity toward minorities and the poor, lower expectations for black students, lack of business and job opportunities for minorities, and harassment of black and Hispanic males. A follow-up meeting and a countywide prayer vigil are being planned, Henson said.
"It's an urgent issue everywhere," said David H. Tucker, executive director of the Columbia Forum, who attended. "The fact is, this country hasn't dealt with questions of racial diversity."
Capt. Richard Hall, commander of the county police patrol division, said the "brainstorming" session was a good idea to prevent hate-bias incidents, which total 40 so far this year in the ,, county, compared to 53 total in 1991.
On May 27, five county police officers, including Hall, will attend an all-day training session at Goucher College on how to deal with hate-bias crimes, he said.
Earlier this month, police went into Glenelg High School to act as "mediators" in the aftermath of a racially motivated fight in which three students were arrested.
Hall said small racial incidents can swell.
"We were all aware of what was going on in L.A., and none of us wanted it to happen here," Hall said.
"I'm very pleased with the outcome" of the meeting, said Pearl Atkinson Stewart, president of the Citizens United for Black Equality, and a member of the Columbia Forum. "Everyone . . . was willing to do whatever to begin the healing process."
On Sunday evening, more than 150 people attended an evening rally at the First Baptist Church of Guilford to criticize the verdict in the King case, and to call for "housecleaning" in government across Maryland.
Earline Green, 62, said she attended the two-hour rally to quench her thirst for information. "I'd like to know what is actually happening in our neighborhood and what people actually think about it," she said.
Green said the King verdict stunned her.
"I didn't believe it. I didn't want to believe it," she said.
During the pulsating and hand-clapping church service, the Rev. John L. Wright, the church's pastor and president of the state NAACP, said, "We need to do some sweeping -- clean some house from the State House to the courthouse to the jail house."
Wright, who also attended Saturday's meeting, said there must be increased minority representation in state politics.
Wright added that there must be racial balance in the judicial system, so blacks and whites will be treated equally.
To make his point, Wright alluded to the acquittal of the four Los Angeles officers. That was "an injustice," he said. King "was no gorilla, he was no ape, he was no bull. He was a human being beaten by savage police officers."
Other speakers mentioned cross burnings and alleged police harassment of black motorists in the county.
"God will work it out," said the Rev. Robert Hurte, instigating an infectious and resounding applause.
Hurte is minister at Community Baptist Church in Jessup.