Hot line ad stirs racial concern Image of clasped hands on billboard promotes rape crisis center

'It's disturbing'

Some say rapist depicted as black, victim as white

October 01, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

A Hampstead billboard advertising the services of a local rape crisis center has inadvertently caused a racial stir.

The billboard, a block from Main Street, shows a man's hand clasping a woman's with a caption that explains "He's not holding her hand. He's holding her down." Below the artwork, large red letters read "Rape Crisis Intervention Service of Carroll County. 24 hour hotline: 410-857-7322."

At issue is the photo of the hands. To some, the image appears to have racist undertones because the man's hand is darker than the woman's.

"It's disturbing. It looks like a black man raping a white woman," said Elaine Price, who works at Hampstead Florist.

The billboard is across the street from the store, on the eastbound side of Route 88.

Several customers of Serendipity Bridal and Formal Wear, at the foot of the billboard, have complained to shop owner Jennifer Curran.

"Personally, I never really looked at it and saw it as a racist image until other people started commenting on it," Curran said. "Now I see it that way. But at first, it wasn't the image that bothered me, it was the whole concept of rape. I'm a bridal store, dealing with a happy occasion. Seeing that sign doesn't exactly make my customers feel real happy."

Not everyone in the town of 4,125 people shares Curran's concern. Many residents don't see what all the fuss is about.

"To me, it doesn't look like a black man. It just looks like a very hairy white man," said Stacey Smith of Manchester, who passes the sign on her way to work in Hampstead.

The billboard has been on display about a month, said Jo Ann Hare, executive director of Rape Crisis Intervention Service of Carroll County, an organization that helped 322 clients last year.

"We hadn't received a single complaint until today," Hare said yesterday.

The billboard became the focus of public debate yesterday, after a caller complained about it on a local radio talk show.

"Our intent was not to malign anyone," Hare said. "Our intent was to have an eye-catching billboard to promote community awareness of this problem. People move here thinking they'll get away from crime. But Carroll is not the Garden of Eden. Crime FTC doesn't stop at the county line.

"We need people to know that hands can be held in violence as well as affection, that a woman can be overpowered by a man even if he doesn't have a weapon," she added. "Our mission is to educate people about sexual crime, so that they won't be as vulnerable and so they know where to go for help."

The photograph displayed on the billboard -- the first to be used by the crisis center in its 20-year history -- was produced by the National Victim Center, in Arlington, Va. For the past decade, the center has been creating artwork that depicts victims' issues.

The poster on display in Hampstead was created more than five years ago, in an art contest held in the Washington area, according to Diane Alexander, director of the center's Library and Field Services. College students were asked to portray sexual assault between men and women.

"The poster has been distributed throughout the country. Never before has it been the subject of controversy," Alexander said.

She could not identify the man in the photo and did not know his race.

Hampstead Town Manager Neil Ridgely said he has not received any complaints about the advertisement. It is the only billboard within town limits.

"If someone made an issue of it, I would certainly take it up with Mr. Bair," Ridgely said, referring to Scott S. Bair Jr. of Bair Outdoor Advertising Co., the company that owns the billboard.

Bair could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Said Ridgely: "We might even have a provision in our town code that requires removal of offensive advertising."

It might not get to that.

"If we got enough feedback from people to indicate that there were a serious negative perception of the billboard, then we would certainly consider taking it down," Hare said.

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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