Keeping an eye on racism Ingredients for unrest exist here, leaders say

May 07, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

The racial atmosphere in Anne Arundel is relatively good, but the county isn't immune from the conditions that produced an explosion of rage in Los Angeles, public officials and black leaders said yesterday.

During a press conference at Kneseth Israel Synagogue in Annapolis, County Executive Robert R. Neall said the California riots "remind me of how fortunate we are here in Anne Arundel County."

He commended the African American-Jewish Coalition, which sponsored the press conference, and the County Human Relations Commission for their roles in promoting equality and -- harmony.

Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, city Alderman Samuel Gilmer, Black Political Forum Chairman Lewis Bracy and Vincent O. Leggett, a co-chairman of the African American-Jewish Coalition, also spoke at the conference.

George Phelps Jr., a member of the coalition and an Annapolis businessman, said afterward that some of the restraint is due to citizens within the black community who work behind the scenes, defusing tension.

"Having different people to air their frustrations, such as with the coalition, such as people aspiring to be leaders, is a psychological defusing," he said.

Equally important, a "strategic communication network" of blacks, composed of "good strong substantial taxpayers in this town" continues to work with those within the community who are likely to initiate racial disturbances, Phelps said.

Similarly, during the 1968 riots in Annapolis that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Phelps and others worked quietly to defuse violence, he said. "The average person in this city then doesn't even know how that thing stopped. They didn't know rioters had gasoline bombs downtown and we moved every bottle," he said.

Alderman Carl Snowden, D-Ward 5, also commended the Anne Arundel black community's restraint during the L.A. police trial verdict, but added a strong caution.

"We must be ever mindful of the fact that the same ingredients that led to the explosion in Los Angeles exist in our county as well -- racism, religious bigotry, abject poverty and injustice."

Snowden said the trial of the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King follows local events that blacks consider troubling. He cited a judge's decision to allow the Annapolis Elks Club to keep its alcohol license, though the club's laws prohibit women from admittance and "by custom have kept out blacks for 90 years of existence," Snowden said.

County blacks still are seething over the death in October 1989 of Crystal Nelson, a pregnant black woman from Severn shot by a white county police officer during a drug raid on her apartment, Snowden said. "This incident is a tragic situation, and the government denied any responsibility," he said.

Nelson was shot and killed by a county police officer while a search warrant was being served at her home. Police reported that the officer's weapon went off accidentally. County State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee found the officer to have been negligent, but the officer did not face criminal charges.

For Phelps, beneath-the-surface racism causes as much trouble as inflammatory, public events.

For example, "it's very difficult for small businessmen to get money. Banks are insensitive. Even for me, it's very hard," said Phelps, who owns Phelps Protections Systems. "Here we are, well-educated, well-documented, having a business base right here in Annapolis and an office in Baltimore. We have handled contracts way in excess of a million dollars, and the man says he's never heard of us."

Phelps said he worries about "not what you see on the surface, but what you see when you're in the street. I know the pulse of this county. If a politician wants the bottom-line truth, not something that will sound good -- well, this [institutionalized racism] is frustrating for me."

But black leaders also said they are hopeful of change.

"Neall is making efforts; the African American-Jewish Coalition is encouraging dialogue," said Phelps. "And we've got to encourage the African-American people to use the most powerful weapon we have -- the vote. We can fight with that."

Snowden said he hopes that the violence in the wake of the L.A. police verdict "will be an example of steps we should take to avoid this kind of tragedy from happening in our county."

"We all take great solace in the fact that no major racial outbreaks of violence have occurred in our county, but Crystal Nelson's case ought not be forgotten," Snowden said.

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