Panel to look at race issues

Relations council to talk with community leaders, plan meetings

December 23, 2005|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

A fledgling group with the goal of improving race relations in Anne Arundel County will start next month to make nuts-and-bolts plans for dealing with racial tensions.

The Race Relations Coordinating Council will meet Jan. 31 with community leaders to set up what are expected to be four town hall-style forums around the county, the site of a recent airing of a white supremacist video on cable TV, sporadic race crimes and distribution of hate literature in neighborhoods. Between 75 and 100 people are being invited to the planning meeting at Anne Arundel Community College.

The town hall meetings will be geared toward encouraging neighborhood, civic, religious and other groups to create "rapid response teams" - community networks to quickly help victims of hate crimes and plan a neighborhood response to anything from a cross-burning on one person's lawn to blanketing the area with hate mail. The meetings also aim to lessen anxiety about hate crimes and to open discussions about race.

Activists believe coordinated responses help affected people and bolster community cohesion in the face of what they consider divisive behavior. That sentiment led to the creation last summer of the umbrella group.

"I see it as an opportunity for residents in a particular community to come together around an issue," said Janis M. Harvey, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, one of the planners. "What we are hoping is to bring awareness, education and to create an action plan in response to this issue.

"We are also hoping to suggest some other strategies that people can use in their communities."

For the past year, the YWCA has held "discovery dinners" to bring together a diverse group of people over meals. With a trained facilitator, participants discussed personal aspects of race relations.

Since the summer, two neighborhoods have held vigils in response to the white supremacist fliers, a response Adrian D. Wiseman, human relations officer for the county, praised.

The race relations council hopes such actions ultimately convey a message that the hate crimes, white supremacist leafleting and the like are unwelcome, he said.

But since the group came together last summer because of racial incidents, thousands of county residents have found hate literature on their lawns, and this month, county officials said they had no choice but to air on the public access cable television station a white supremacist video that had been submitted by a county resident.

The showing of America Is a Changing Country, a video produced by a West Virginia neo-Nazi group called the National Alliance, left county officials chagrined and led them to publicly denounce its message.

County officials said they were legally obligated to air the video on the public-access channel, as it met the terms for airing: it is protected free speech, was sponsored by a county resident and did not violate rules banning pornography, commercial advertisements, fraud, prizes and such.

"They have a right to do it, no matter how hateful it is. This is America," Wiseman said.

Matt Diehl, spokesman for County Executive Janet S. Owens, said the video was shown at 11:30 p.m. because that was the time available and the station does not bump regular shows for programs submitted by county residents. He said Owens was not involved in selecting the time slot.

How many of the county's 150,000 cable subscribers watched any of the three showings is unknown. County officials have received a few calls, complaints both that it should not have been allowed and that the county wants to suppress free speech, said Diehl.

The Race Relations Coordinating Council, like the county government, is restricted in what it can do if it doesn't like a message. The fliers and video have content that is legal to disclose and were distributed legally.

"All we can do is encourage people to speak out against this kind of activity. That is all anyone can do," Wiseman said.

County officials identified the video's local sponsor as Douglas W. Hantske of Edgewater.

Any county resident can submit a show for airing, and everything from home videos to public domain movies gets shown. The channel's staff screens submissions to make sure they comply with the law, Diehl said. Of about 1,350 submissions in the past year, about a dozen raised red flags, all for advertisements, he said.

Typically, programs are run two or three times.

Anne Arundel County police said 63 suspected racial incidents were reported in the first 10 months of this year; 11 were literature drops. Most of the incidents were anti-African-American; literature has also included anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views. About 14 percent of the county's population of about 500,000 is black.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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