Week of racial tension follows melee in Denton Blacks protest police treatment of teens

January 31, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

DENTON -- The rage inside Denese Williams burns as hot as the police officer's cayenne pepper spray that stung her 15-year-old son's eyes.

Last Sunday night, her son, Vernel, a North Caroline High School sophomore, burst through the front door, clutching at his eyes, his shirt in tatters, his clothing soaked by water hoses, yelling hysterically.

He and his 13-year-old brother, James, had been caught up in the violence that erupted at a teen dance. Members of the town's all-white, eight-member police force used dogs, night sticks and the pepper spray to disperse black youths.

Although the dance at Denton Fire Hall attracted a racially diverse crowd of 300 youths, Mrs. Williams and many others in the black community in this rural Eastern Shore town say they believe that black teens were singled out for punishment.

In the days since, the level of racial tension here has shown little sign of easing -- a surprising development in a community which until Monday had not witnessed a civil rights protest in a dozen years.

About a dozen students were suspended from North Caroline High School last week, most as the result of fights that broke out between blacks and whites. A white student also was suspended one week for trying to bring a Confederate flag into school.

A Thursday night basketball game against archrival Easton was canceled by school officials, who feared racial conflicts.

"We've had some overflow from the incident Sunday," admitted R. Allan Gorsuch, the county's superintendent of schools. "Obviously, there's been a high level of feeling."

Responding to a request by Denton Police Chief William C. Davis, state police announced Wednesday that they will investigate the incident and how police responded.

Black parents are angry not only at the police, but at a white establishment that they say seems indifferent to their struggles with unemployment, housing, poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.

Whites claim that the episode has been blown out of proportion, and that the police have been unfairly criticized.

"They pushed our kids out on the street and treated them like dogs," said Mrs. Williams, 30, a cook at a local nursing home.

"This is a very prejudiced town. It just stinks, the whole system."

Black or white, many residents in this town of 2,977 agree that repercussions from the incident have fallen like a Scud missile into their normally tranquil lives. About 50 black parents and children marched in protest over the incident yesterday afternoon from the courthouse to the fire hall eight blocks away, singing and carrying signs with messages that included "Hope Peace Love" and "Let's stick together."

The rally attracted only a few clusters of white spectators along the route and proved peaceful.

Organizers said afterward they may schedule protests each Saturday until the state police investigation is concluded. They said they want assurances that blacks will receive equal treatment from the police and are waiting to have questions answered about the Sunday incident.

Yesterday's march was the third such protest by the black community in six days. Last Monday morning, about 60 irate black parents marched together to the town office; 150 people attended an emotional meeting later that night at a local church to voice their concerns.

The last time Denton saw such an outpouring of emotion was in July 1981, when an all-white jury convicted Clayton N. Robinson, an 18-year-old white, of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder in the execution-style slaying of 17-year-old Leonard Pope, a black high-school student shot six times and left in a shallow grave near Federalsburg.

"We haven't really had anything like this before," said James R. Coursey, a retired auto mechanic and the town's only black commissioner. "The overall factor is that the economy has been very slow and they [blacks] always get hurt first. There might have been some hostility building up."

Witnesses claim last Sunday's gathering got out of hand shortly after the dance was stopped at 8:30 p.m. because of fighting, and fire officials refused to refund the $4 admission. Police from neighboring jurisdictions were called to help. Volunteer firefighters sprayed the crowd with water at one point in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

No one was seriously hurt during the melee, but parents claim that some 10 to 12 black children were either burned by pepper spray or bruised by police clubbing. Vernel Williams said the spray's effects took two days to wear off despite repeated washings and that he still has trouble sleeping.

"I felt like I was blind," said Vernel, who was one of the students suspended for fighting. "It didn't just burn my eyes. It burned my face."

Eugenia Peet, a mother of two, said she was horrified when her 15-year-old daughter, Lashawnnia, came home "screaming and angry" after she was hit with pepper spray by police at the dance. She said she will not be satisfied until the police involved are fired.

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