Black clergy criticize loitering law supporters

`Report card' flunks two Annapolis officials

November 01, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

An organization of black clergy from 50 churches in Anne Arundel County has accused the Annapolis mayor and an alderman of insensitivity toward African-Americans and issued them an "F" grade for passing anti-loitering legislation last month despite vehement opposition from several black groups.

The United Black Clergy of Anne Arundel County released its "report card" slamming Mayor Dean L. Johnson and Alderman Herbert H. McMillan for publication today, the same day that state, county and Annapolis officials are to gather at the city dock to announce plans for a $150,000 Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley memorial. Bishop Larry Lee Thomas, president of United Black Clergy and pastor of St. James Church of Apostolic Faith in Glen Burnie, said their lambasting Johnson and McMillan had nothing to do with the Kunta Kinte event.

The law allows communities to apply for "drug-loitering free zone" status so police can ask suspected drug dealers loitering in privately owned areas in those neighborhoods to move on. The ordinance says that "known" drug offenders -- defined as those convicted of drug possession, distribution or use in the past seven years -- will be barred from loitering in these designated communities, even if they are not behaving suspiciously.

The city council approved the ordinance 5-4 last month after months of heated debate within Annapolis in which groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union protested, charging that the law would allow police officers to harass all black people standing on street corners.

Opponents also argued the bill would bar residents of public housing communities from standing on their sidewalks to chat and hang out to escape their small, stuffy apartments in the summer.

Supporters of the bill included Annapolis Housing Authority Executive Director Patricia Croslan, several African-American residents of public housing communities and the city's more than 200 Neighborhood Watch block leaders, who hailed it as a much-needed tool to fight drug dealing.

Johnson, who voted for the bill, said he was disappointed by the United Black Clergy's report card.

"The legislation is not focused on the black community. It's not focused on public housing," he said Friday. "In fact, the first request for designation came from a community that didn't fit those designations at all."

An Eastport Neighborhood Watch group has applied for drug-loitering free zone status. The city council could approve the application as early as this month.

Alderman Samuel Gilmer, an African-American who represents Ward 3, said "Bravo" to the United Black Clergy for the report.

"I supported not having the bill at all," said Gilmer, who voted against it. "Here they are, making a law that's aimed at a specific group of people who don't have the luxury of a five-bedroom house with a big TV, have no bar in their neighborhood to hang out in, are not members of a social club."

The United Black Clergy's report attacked Johnson for failing to "exercise moral leadership" on the loitering issue, accused McMillan of exacerbating "racial tensions in the city of Annapolis" and said both "never attempted to meet with our organization to see if a compromise could be worked out."

Johnson was furious with the accusation, saying he did meet with members of the United Black Clergy to discuss the bill before casting his vote.

"I may not have met with them as an organization but I've met with their members individually," Johnson said. "For them to say that, they're twisting the truth. I had a number of meetings with them."

Thomas said Johnson did meet with some pastors but that he hasn't met him. Thomas emphasized that his group is trying to speak up on behalf of its congregations and plans to issue similar report cards next year assessing state and county governments.

"We just feel that this is something that we can do to make sure they know that we have our ears open and are watching their performances," Thomas said.

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