Hate Rise?

Law Enforcement, Politicians Worry That Assault Against Elderly Black Man May Be Symptomatic Of A Growing Climate Of Anger

August 20, 2009|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,nick.madigan@baltsun.com

When people pack assault rifles at presidential forums and town-hall meetings dissolve into shouting matches, it's easy to imagine such anger spilling over into the nation's simmering stew of racial prejudice.

A day after a self-proclaimed white supremacist was arrested in Baltimore for attempted murder in an assault on a 76-year-old black man, law enforcement officials and politicians expressed concern Wednesday that the tenor of current politics could prompt an increase in hate crimes.

"I think that for people who may be on the fringes already, the mood right now in the country might just be the little push they need to act on their feelings," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. "Fortunately, we're not seeing that just yet."

There is no telling whether Calvin E. Lockner, 28, the man charged in the beating early Tuesday, was inspired by the national brawl over health care reform, but he told police officers that he "did not like people who were different from him."

Lockner goes by the nickname "Hitler," a name ascribed also to President Barack Obama by some of his more virulent critics.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat who represents Baltimore and the author of Maryland's 1988 hate-crimes statute, said there is a "very disturbing tone in the health care debate and among the 'birthers' " - people who insist that Obama, a native of Hawaii, was born outside the United States.

Such a tone, complete with insults hurled in public at those with opposite views, is deeply troublesome, Rosenberg said. But, he went on, "People are not going to be prosecuted for simple speech: There has to be a criminal act."

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the country is experiencing an "environment of evil," and he linked the heated rhetoric at town-hall meetings with Tuesday's assault in Fort Armistead Park.

Television and radio are filled with "the hatred that is expressed on issues of the day," Abramson said. "It is important for us to remember that too often, and not that long ago, these issues can translate into reality."

Law enforcement officials around Maryland said Wednesday they had not detected any recent rise in the number of hate crimes.

In fact, figures provided by the Maryland State Police in a new report show a decline in such crimes. The total number reported statewide in 2006 was 540; in 2007 it was 427; and last year it was 390.

Most focused on race, followed by religion, ethnic identity and sexual orientation. The majority involved destruction of property.

The largest offender group remained whites, the state police said. There were 129 white offenders arrested for bias crimes last year in Maryland and 40 who were black.

In 2008, for the 13th consecutive year, Baltimore County had the highest number of bias incidents: 127, or 32.6 percent of the total reported for the state. Anne Arundel County was second, with 81 incidents, and Howard County third, with 45. Harford County had 10, and Baltimore City and Carroll County each had five, the state police said.

C. Vernon Gray, who served on the Howard County Council for more than 20 years, said that when an individual is targeted, "the neighborhood and the community is being attacked."

"People are always shocked and surprised when something like this happens," Gray said. "But these type of acts still exist."

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, who is Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's pastor, said, "We need to turn to each other now and not on each other."

After an Annapolis-based white supremacist was accused of murdering a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in June, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said violence against people "based on who they are, based on hate, is on the rise."

The FBI says the number of hate crimes nationwide has been holding steady at about 7,600 annually. Bret Kirby, who supervises domestic-terrorism investigations from the FBI's Baltimore office, said in a recent interview that hate groups specialize in anti-government rhetoric.

"A lot of the reason they act is they think the government isn't doing what they should be doing to protect them," he said. "Tough economic times just make things worse."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said white supremacist groups are well-known to his department. Among others, he mentioned Aryan Nations, whose members claim that the biblical "chosen people" are the Anglo-Saxons, not the Jews, and describe as "mud people" anyone who is not white.

"We have our finger on a lot of these insane, violent people," Bealefeld said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Tricia Bishop, Kelly Brewington, Justin Fenton, Annie Linskey, Don Markus and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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