Canton residents discuss race relations Community talk seeks to dispel prejudice

January 16, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Canton is the latest Baltimore neighborhood to open a dialogue on race relations in hopes of purging prejudice from the community.

These days, much of the talk in the waterfront neighborhood centers on racial stereotypes and the issues that divide black and white Americans. The commentary was prompted by an apparent hate crime: last month's brutal beating of an African-American Safeway employee, allegedly by a group of white youths.

About 70 residents attended the Canton-Highlandtown Community Association's meeting Wednesday night to talk openly about the incident. The discussion was led by members of Rejoicing in Community Harmony, a project of the Southeast Community Organization, and the Interfaith Action for Racial Justice, a Baltimore nonprofit group.

Organizers of both groups said yesterday that they believe the interracial gathering was the first of its kind in Canton.

Similar discussions have been held in other areas of the city, including Park Heights and Homeland. Residents of Anne Arundel and Carroll counties also have had neighborly chats about race relations.

"The attack was a wake-up call for Canton," said Anthony Poole, coordinator of RICH. "It made many residents realize the need to come together and start talking to one another, to break down the barriers of ignorance and discover what it is we all have in common."

Much of Wednesday's discussion focused on the attack at the Canton Safeway, which opened in the rapidly growing community in the fall of 1996.

On Dec. 8, an 18-year-old African-American youth was collecting shopping carts at the west end of the Safeway parking lot, near Boston and Hudson streets, when he was surrounded by nine "white males with shaved heads" and beaten with an unknown "metal object," according to the police report written the night of the assault.

"They came up behind me and one of them struck me in the face with something -- I think it was an aluminum baseball bat," said the victim, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

The victim said he suffered extensive injuries to his back and head, including a shattered nose and broken teeth. He said he requires daily physical therapy.

Safeway Inc. is paying for the youth's medical bills and has increased security at the store.

"I'm not sure when, or if, I'll go back to work there," the victim said. "Right now, I'm just trying to focus on getting better."

Police are investigating whether the attack was racially motivated. Maj. Timothy Longo, commander of Southeastern District, said yesterday that police are searching for Damion Dwight Stewart, a 20-year-old East Baltimore youth, who has been charged with attempted first-degree murder, assault and a weapons violation. Stewart lives in the area of Rose Street and Fait Avenue, Longo said.

As police continue their investigation, residents of the Canton community are embracing the idea of a dialogue on race relations. A second meeting to discuss the issue will be held in the next four weeks.

Organizers hope the meeting will lead to the creation of "study circles" in Canton. Study circles are interracial groups of 10 to 15 people who meet to talk about difficult issues, such as race relations, education and crime. In recent years, dozens of communities nationwide have embraced the small-group discussions.

In Baltimore, organizers are hoping to involve more than 1,000 residents in the dialogue.

"It's important for communities to speak out and say that racist behavior is unacceptable," said John C. Springer, Interfaith Action's executive director. "It's a conversation that leads to action, that leads to racial reconciliation."

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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