Racist Graffiti Leads to Arrests

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

The arrest Saturday of another group of teenagers for painting "KKK" in Charles County appears to further the notion -- at least in recent cases -- that racist graffiti has been the work of teens wanting attention as much as anything else.

Three of the four teenagers charged over the weekend were African American, according to the Charles County Sheriff's Office. Their spray-painted markings, in the Wexford Village neighborhood in Waldorf last month, seemed to have a nonsensical nature. Next to "KKK," a group traditionally opposed to homosexuality, was "Gay Pride," authorities said.

This follows an incident in March, when four teens were arrested for defiling playground equipment at Dr. Gustavus Brown Elementary School in Waldorf. Their messages extolled white supremacy and the Bloods, a largely black national street gang. The juveniles charged in that case also were a racially and ethnically diverse group, authorities said. Detective Christopher Shankster of the Sheriff's Office said the four "wanted a piece" of media attention.

No clear motive has surfaced in the latest case, which was solved after a student left an anonymous tip in a box at a high school.

Chris Cusmano, a sheriff's officer, said that as best as he could tell, at least two of four arrested in connection with the latest graffiti wanted to draw attention to themselves. His account of the night also depicts youths sneaking out of their houses, with little forethought to what they were doing.

"It didn't seem to preplanned," Cusmano said. "They simply met up."

The four youths had at least one can of spray paint. They allegedly painted vulgar phrases and drawings on about 17 vehicles, mailboxes and driveways in the neighborhood where many African Americans live. More specifically, they allegedly wrote "KKK" and "Gay Pride" on four vehicles, drew a penis on a truck and destroyed a mailbox.

Cusmano said the four teenagers later told him they had not targeted anyone in particular.

Vince Tucker, who lives in the neighborhood, said that any African American kids involved probably did not connect the KKK to its dangerous past and that they may have sprayed "KKK" to throw off anyone trying link them to the vandalism. Tucker, who works in the District, said that the different races in the neighborhood get along and that he does not consider the KKK to be a threat.

"It's too late for that now," Tucker said. "People from different races are here. . . . Charles County is not the same Charles County it was."

Authorities still do not know the motives behind a series of graffiti hate crimes stretching back to last year, some of which remain unsolved. In April, when authorities arrested a different graffiti group, they discovered that one teen had two books about Nazi Germany.

The latest arrests left some Charles residents disheartened and scratching their heads.

"It kind of hits you like a ton of bricks," said William Braxton, 54, president of the Charles County Chapter of the NAACP.

He said the teenagers, if they did this, probably do not have the same perspective of Klan members as people of his generation, who remember the Klan's lethal tactics of the 1960s and before. "They don't have a clue of what the KKK really means," Braxton said.

"They're just kids being stupid," he added. "I really would like to sit down and talk to them about Martin Luther King."

David Friedman, director of the Washington regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, stressed that no matter who spray-painted the words "KKK," the graffiti remains profoundly disturbing and hurtful. He agreed with Braxton that today's African American teenagers might not see "KKK" in a violent light.

"I think that there is a generation gap in this," he said.

To an extent, that's a reflection of the Klan being a diminished threat to the youths, leaving aside the alleged vandalism. Friedman also noted the social progress suggested by their perceptions.

"I think it's a good thing," he said.

The recent arrests had another strange twist: the Amish-made tip box.

After Cusmano and other officers thought of the idea of school tip boxes, he said he went to see one of the Amish carpenters who lives near him in the Budds Creek area. Cusmano said he took a prototype and returned later to see the craftsman's work.

"I was just absolutely blown away," the officer said.

The boxes cost $160 each; an area Crime Solvers organization pays for them, Cusmano said. They are built to hold the official forms student tipsters must fill out. The Sheriff's Office has installed them in about seven schools and wants to install more.

Students can submit anonymously tips about crimes in which other students might be involved. Rewards of up to $500 are available for useful information. The Sheriff's Office said the boxes have helped officers solve several other lesser cases.

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