Amid a rash of hate incidents, officials in Anne Arundel County are scrambling to address the problem — with plans to submit legislation, change school curriculum and improve prosecution of hate crimes.
Examples of hate from just the past month include Ku Klux Klan fliers in the Iron Stone community in Lothian on Monday. More than 30 Klan propaganda fliers were dropped in front yards in Glen Burnie on Saturday. On Nov. 1, a noose made of toilet paper was found hanging in a boys bathroom at Chesapeake Bay Middle School. The day before, an anonymous message containing a photo of a Confederate flag and the words “You n----s will rue the day,” was shared digitally at Chesapeake High School.
Del. Mark Chang, a Glen Burnie Democrat, said the latest batch of fliers underscored the need for community members to stand up against hate and for lawmakers to do what they can to fill in gaps in the law.
He planned to resubmit a bill he had sponsored in this year’s General Assembly that would expand hate-crime laws to include placing a noose or swastika on a property without permission as a criminal offense.
He sponsored the bill in the 2018 General Assembly session after an Anne Arundel County judge said he couldn’t find one of the suspects in a noose-hanging case at a Crofton school guilty of a hate crime because there wasn’t a specific target or victim in the case.
Versions of the bill easily passed the House of Delegates and the state Senate, but the measure got caught up in an end-of-session logjam.
“It’s definitely a priority of mine,” Chang said. “It’s going to be a priority of the legislature to take action on this.”
Democrat Steuart Pittman, the county executive-elect who beat Republican incumbent Steve Schuh last week, said he wanted to expand school curriculum on diversity and create more inclusive boards and committees.
Democrat Anne Colt Leitess, the incoming state’s attorney who beat Republican incumbent Wes Adams, said she would look at anti-bias training, improving the identification and prosecution of hate crimes and participating in community outreach programs.
Their initiatives come as other state officials look to battle hate crimes. After the mass shooting last month at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat from Baltimore, said he would re-introduce legislation that would apply stiffer penalties to those who threaten to commit hate crimes, such as someone who calls in a bomb threat to a Jewish community center. That attack precipitated services and vigils around the country, including in Annapolis.
Many of the incidents reported to police, such as the Klan fliers, are not crimes because they’re speech protected by the First Amendment.
The Klan distributions in Anne Arundel are among about a dozen such flier incidents since the beginning of 2016 that have been reported to police across the state. Police spokeswoman Sgt. Jacklyn Davis said the recent distributions in Anne Arundel did not incite violence and are not crimes but feature “nasty rhetoric,” she said.
Last month, the Klan also distributed fliers in South Baltimore.
Hate incidents in Maryland have been on the rise since 2015, echoing a national increase in reported hate crimes and reversing a long, gradual decline.
Carl Snowden of the Caucus of African American Leaders in Anne Arundel County said hate incidents have moved from several random acts to a pattern.
“People need to take these incidents more seriously,” he said. “We know people act on these emotions,” he said, pointing to the recent rise of homicides across the country allegedly committed by white supremacists.
Snowden said he is happy with the incoming crop of officials in Anne Arundel, many of whom were endorsed by the Caucus. On Tuesday night, Colt Leitess and Pittman will be among several leaders at his group’s monthly meeting in Annapolis to talk about how to address the threat of hate in the community.
Snowden said he has been talking to leaders of African-American churches and synagogues about boosting security and believes Annapolis needs to reinforce security at some of its buildings. He also thinks there need to be more of an effort to proactively interfere with racism at schools and beyond, similar to “See something, say something.”
“This is not the old stuff of swastikas on synagogues,” he said, “Now we are seeing people go in and kill people.”
Pittman said the first thing he would do is listen to the community leaders like Snowden about what needs to be done.
“The true leaders of Anne Arundel County need to have a seat at the table, and we need to follow them,” he said. “That has not happened enough and that is going to change.”
As he’s putting together committees, boards and commissions, he said, he’s making sure there is diverse representation with the “right people in the right places.”
He also said he’ll be working with the county superintendent and school board to deepen the school curriculum about diversity and inclusion. He said adults and children need a better understanding of slavery and racism in the county. One project he said he’s working on is a memorial to lynching victims in the county.
Colt Leitess said too many incidents that could be prosecuted as hate crimes are not. She referenced the repeated vandalism of the “Black Lives Matter” sign in front of a church in Annapolis in 2016. Police charged Chari Raye McLean with destruction of property counts and not a hate crime; she was convicted.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, who represents the Glen Burnie neighborhood, said he was disheartened to learn about the fliers over the weekend, though he said there may not be a legislative answer to racist fliers because of free speech concerns.
“It’s amazing we’re still dealing with this issue in 2018,” said the Republican from Pasadena. “That’s what astonishes me.”