Race relations council holds hate-crime forums

Sessions to teach residents how to identify and respond to incidents

May 19, 2006|By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON | NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON,SUN REPORTER

It was Christmastime when residents of Beverly Beach in southern Anne Arundel County got the anonymous typed letter on top of their mailboxes.

A newly elected community board member, who was of Middle Eastern descent, was not to be trusted, the note said. He was an infiltrator and didn't belong.

Angry neighbors called Diane Olsen, president of the board.

"I didn't know what to do," Olsen said. "I didn't want to engage a bully."

That inaction didn't last long. Olsen put aside her gift-wrapping, gathered the board and helped stuff envelopes and sent out a pointed response to 350 Beverly Beach residents.

"We don't condone hate speech," the letter stated. "We don't like it, and we won't tolerate it."

Olsen said that because of the board's letter, it "seemed like the silent majority started to wake up."

This type of community-level, rapid response to hate incidents is exactly what the Anne Arundel Race Relations Coordinating Council wants to inspire across the county.

On Tuesday night, the organization kicked off a series of forums to educate people about what a hate crime is and how to appropriately respond.

About 150 people attended the two-hour meeting at the South County Senior Center in Edgewater. Edgewater had one of the most recent hate incidents: In April, an effigy of a black man was found hanging from a bridge that crosses Route 2.

In all, 12 hate incidents have been reported this year to county police, including three distributions of racist fliers. Last year, 76 hate incidents were reported, including 12 flier drops.

The anti-black, anti-Jewish and anti-Hispanic literature dumped on lawns featured grotesque imagery and white supremacist ideas.

The distribution of the fliers is not a crime and is protected free speech, a fact that Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee reiterated Tuesday night.

Police and community leaders speculated that the purpose of the fliers is to recruit members to hate groups.

"People think Anne Arundel County is fertile ground," said Adrian Wiseman, an AARRCC member and human relations officer for Anne Arundel. "But this is not a place to recruit."

In addition to mobilizing rapid response teams at the community and police levels, the commission is considering having the county establish "hate-free zones" that would be marked by signs.

The commission of county officials, community leaders and residents was formed in August after a hate group distributed white supremacist leaflets and a cross was burned in Ferndale, among other incidents.

With the forums, the expectation is that communities will share stories, strategies and solutions, said Carl O. Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Edgewater resident Charlotte Leventry, 70, said she left Tuesday's forum with a sense that communities are at least starting to talk.

"It's good that we're doing this. It's been a long time coming," she said.

Sheriff George F. Johnson IV said the message to those who perpetrate hate crimes and incidents should be clear and delivered by the community.

"If you come to Anne Arundel County, you're going to be met with people who do not tolerate your behavior," he said. "The community has to stand up and let people know that."

The next community forum will be in North County. A date has not yet been set.

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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