A coalition working to improve race relations in the wake of suspected hate crimes and the spreading of white supremacist fliers agreed this week to hold community forums, create teams to respond to racial incidents and explore creating a program for neighborhoods to post signs proclaiming they are "hate-free" zones.
The decisions came during a forum of the Anne Arundel County Race Relations Coordinating Council, held Tuesday with about 75 community leaders.
The group's forward-thinking effort won praise from many attendees, who said the group is on the right track.
"Someone else should not be setting our agenda," said Joyce Phillip, incoming president of the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County.
The race relations group coalesced at the end of last summer amid complaints that there needed to be an organized way of dealing with suspected race-related incidents and white supremacist leafleting. Since then, government agencies and private organizations have been trying to coordinate their efforts. The YWCA, for example, has listed eliminating racism as one of its missions and has held programs on diversity - ideas that neighborhood groups can tap into.
The hate-free zone signs, an idea that Victoria Bruce of Riva said she adapted from a Seattle program, piqued broad interest. Whether signs should be sponsored by the county or privately has yet to be explored. Several people said they would not wait for that decision before talking to their neighborhood groups about adding the signs.
"There is always power in a collective voice," Janis Harvey, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, said after the meeting. Such signs, she said, can be valuable reminders and alert visitors to the idea that residents are watching out for each other.
Harvey, a leader of the race relations group, said the organization will soon discuss the types and locations of town hall-style meetings. While the group initially had four forums in mind, Harvey said it will consider tailoring them to meet needs of different areas or having more than four, depending on which communities want them.
Rapid-response teams, initially suggested by Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, would react to incidents and work with communities and individuals affected by suspected hate crimes or upset by hate leaflets on their lawns.
Last year, county police received 76 reports of suspected race, religion and ethnicity crimes, including from 15 communities in which people received anti-black, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant fliers, police said.
As officials tried to put out a message that county residents reject such views, an Edgewater resident in December sponsored the screening on the county's public access cable television channel of a white-supremacist video by a West Virginia neo-Nazi group. The county was legally obligated to air the video, but the program was shown at 11:30 p.m.
Distributing inflammatory fliers is not a hate crime and is constitutionally protected speech, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee told the group, to the disappointment of some.
But the fliers are troubling and require a neighborhood pledge to protect people who feel their safety is threatened, said Frank Florentine, president of the Property Owners Association of Arundel-on-the-Bay, whose community was the target of leafleting last year. "People come home and see that - they are scared," he said.
Deputy Chief Emerson Davis said police want information on such fliers because it could be useful later.
Most of the incidents have been difficult for police to solve because they are suspected property crimes. "All we have when we get there is some spray paint or some paper on the ground," Davis said.
Carl O. Snowden, a black activist and an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens, urged wider publicity for people who are convicted of hate crimes - though Weathersbee said there have been fewer than 10 in five years. Weathersbee said he would consider placing hate crime convictions on his office's Web site. Tom Marquardt, executive editor of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, said he would consider highlighting them in the newspaper.
Said Snowden: "I think we should treat bigots like pedophiles."