Fraternity supports woman who reported threats

January 31, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

An 82-year-old Columbia woman who says she was assaulted, spit upon and called "nigger" by a 33-year-old white neighbor in her Wilde Lake apartment complex received promises of support yesterday from members of an African-American fraternity.

"You are not alone," David H. Barrett, vice president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, told Jessie Jones and her daughter, Verna Lawes. "We are here to demonstrate our support. We believe this is an issue of race and we also believe it is an issue of age" affecting older Columbia residents.

In addition to demonstrating their solidarity by marching to Ms. Jones' Roslyn Rise apartment, the 21 fraternity members crowded inside her home promised legal support to Ms. Jones and Ms. Lawes, who is a former member of the county Human Rights Commission.

The women told fraternity members they need legal assistance to help prosecute assault charges they have filed against the neighbor and to defend themselves from assault charges the neighbor has filed against them in connection with an Aug. 24 incident.

Waving her cane for emphasis, Ms. Jones gave fraternity members this account of the Aug. 24 incident involving a neighbor identified in court documents as Brenda Sue Cochran:

"She always used to speak to me but this day didn't say a word, because she thought we had something to do with getting rid of her dog. I told her I didn't have anything to do with the dog and Verna didn't have anything to do with the dog.

"She then got up out of her chair and walked in front of me and spit in my face. I took the cane I had to wipe the spit out of my face, and as I was wiping the spit off my face, she took her fist and hit me and knocked me down."

The woman took her cane away from her, Ms. Jones said, and Ms. Lawes came to her rescue. As Ms. Lawes sought to wrestle the cane away from the woman, the neighbor was cut on the forehead, Ms. Jones said. She said the woman later filed assault charges, claiming Ms. Lawes hit her.

"In the meantime, she's . . . saying, 'You no good . . . nigger, go back where you came from. We don't want you here.' That's all I heard all the way home. 'Nigger, nigger, nigger!' " Ms. Jones said.

Ms. Lawes and her mother said they filed their assault charges after assault charges had been filed against them. They have been harassed by unknown people after filing countercharges, Ms. Lawes said.

First, people showed up in front of her apartment with a pit bull in an open panel truck -- "right here in front of my mother's door with the dog not tied," Ms. Lawes said.

Next, "a caravan of motorbikers all dressed in leather came in here and parked in front of my mother's house and just sat there in an intimidating manner," Ms. Lawes said. "I don't know if this was intended to frighten my mother or what, but I know that I've had racial remarks thrown at me [by the neighbor] several times" since the incident.

"The thing we are living with is fear because of the intimidation. . . . To suggest this is not a racially motivated assault is ludicrous," Ms. Lawes said.

But Ms. Cochran maintained last night that the incident had nothing to do with race, or any dispute over a pet dog that she formerly owned. The dog "was outside playing without a leash and the pound picked it up," and since the apartments do not allow pets, she "just never picked [the dog] up," Ms. Cochran said.

"That is not what this started over. I was sitting down talking with one of her neighbors, and she came over and called me some names, and I called her some names right back," Ms. Cochran said.

"I thought this was over with," she said in an interview at her apartment. "What am I supposed to do now -- bring in 21 white people to support me? This is what gets it going. I've never been a prejudiced person, but some people make you feel like you should be.

"I'm not a terrible person. I get along with people in the neighborhood. I don't have a dog, and I don't have any biker friends."

Ms. Cochran said she has spoken previously with a manager of the apartment complex about getting professional help to mediate the dispute. "I'm scared, I've been threatened and I'm alone here with my three kids," she said. "I can't sit back and live here in peace as I would like."

Ms. Cochran said she and Ms. Jones met privately and apologized to each other about a week prior to a Jan. 11 hearing on the charges against Ms. Jones and Ms. Lawes.

She was planning to have the charges dropped until learning that police were still investigating the incident, Ms. Cochran said. She said she was granted a continuance of the case in Howard County District Court.

Ms. Lawes said she is concerned that the owners of the apartment complex have not issued a statement expressing regret over the incident and saying they do not condone acts of racial violence and hatred.

Fraternity members told Ms. Jones and Ms. Lawes "to be strong" and not to be intimidated.

They said they would ask Charles Jerome Ware, a fraternity brother and attorney for the Maryland Chapter of the National Association of Colored People, to take on Ms. Jones' case for free.

"We cannot tolerate this," said fraternity President Harry Evans III.

"We're going to be putting out the word," he said. "Columbia's African-American community is known for its base of power. We want to make sure our words are followed with deeds."

Mr. Evans said this is the first time in his memory that the fraternity has demonstrated on behalf of someone claiming verbal or physical racial assault.

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